Mali Red Cross aids thousands fleeing Cote d'Ivoire conflict

Published: 7 January 2003 0:00 CET

Tope Akinwande in Loulouni, Mali

The day after the armed conflict erupted in Cote d'Ivoire on 19 September, a steady stream of refugees and returnees began crossing the border into Mali. Using bush paths to cross the frontier, these people - most of them women, children and the elderly - are often in a deplorable condition when they arrive.

As soon as the first batch of refugees and returnees arrived, the Malian authorities opened a camp in Zegoua. But as the fighting intensified and fears for the safety of these displaced people increased, a permanent camp was set up in Loulouni, 100 km from the border.

In December 2002, the International Federation launched an emergency appeal for 1.3 million Swiss francs (US$ 886,000) to help the Red Cross Socieites of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger deal with the sudden arrival of thousands of vulnerable people.

"We are overwhelmed by the influx of people fleeing the Ivorian crisis", says Samassekou Bocary, governor of Sikasso, the city under whose jurisdiction both Zegoua and Loulouni fall. "Though the Red Cross has been assisting us since the arrival of the first batch of refugees and returnees, we need more assistance to meet their needs."

Bocary says the Malian Red Cross (MRC) was the first humanitarian organization to assist the victims of Ivorian crisis, providing each family with food and non-food items such as rice, cooking oil, sugar, soap, mosquito nets and sleeping mats.

"The population, including the government authorities, was surprised by the swiftness of our response and the fact that we offered direct assistance without going through any intermediary," explains Sibiry Diarra, secretary-general of the MRC, which is part of a National Emergency Team set up by the Malian government.

Working closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the MRC trained 50 volunteers who have been working round the clock to assist the displaced. They have been distributing food and other relief items, giving first aid and psychological counselling and raising awareness of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as HIV/AIDS.

Thousands of refugees and returnees have moved to Sikasso, where the Malian authorities have set up two temporary sites, as well as other parts of the country. But many West African refugees, 70 per cent of them Ivorians, are stuck in the Loulouni camp, with its terrible humanitarian and weather conditions.

Like many other parts of Mali, Loulouni is an arid land, its temperatures frequently rising as high as high as 40° Celsius. With the dry, cold harmattan season reaching its peak in December and January, many refugees are suffering from malaria and respiratory diseases, made worse by the village's poor health and sanitary system and lack of electricity. Health officials pass by once a week, and locals have to travel 60 km to Sikasso when they require serious medical treatment.

"Though these refugees are from West Africa, the majority of them are not used to the harsh conditions they have found in this camp," explains the manager of the Loulouni camp, Souleymane Sanago. He says two refugees have already perished and a third is dying of AIDS.

"The only health personnel in the camp are nurses from the Red Cross and they can't handle all the cases", he adds. "We need people to come to our aid as soon as possible."

Red Cross emergency assistance is not limited to Loulouni and Sikasso. As fighting intensifies in the western Ivorian town of Man, Malians and other West Africans are fleeing into the Guinean town of Nzerekore before crossing the border into Mali.

They are received by the Malian authorities and Red Cross volunteers in the eastern town of Kolondiaba before moving to the capital city of Bamako where another team of Red Cross volunteers are on standby at the Modibo Keita Stadium.

"Most of the refugees and returnees we receive at the Modibo Keita Stadium are tired children, women and aged persons who have walked through thick forest from Cote d'Ivoire into Guinea before arriving in Mali", says Aminata Diarra, a nurse, midwife and Red Cross volunteer.

"We give them first aid assistance and refer the seriously ill to the Bamako General Hospital. I have even delivered two babies in the changing room of the stadium," she adds proudly.

Apart from the Red Cross, other humanitarian agencies such as UNICEF, the Islamic Relief Agency and Medecin Sans Frontieres have been assisting the refugees and returnees.

Related links:

Cote d'Ivoire: appeals, updates and reports
Emergency appeal for Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso
Make a donation