Child Soldiers, Rape, Displacement: Is Mali A Forgotten Crisis?

May 17, 2012

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by fighting in northern Mali © Amnesty International

I am sure that many of you have recently heard or read about the armed conflicts and humanitarian crises in Syria and the Sudan (the latter thanks to some serious attention from celebrity actors and journalists). Less attention is being given to a country that is facing its worst human rights crisis in half a century: Mali.

The regional organization ECOWAS has been very invested in mitigating the crisis and is even preparing to send in troops. While these regional efforts are backed by the United States and other international actors, Mali’s crisis is not getting the attention it deserves and rarely makes the headlines.

Our researchers have recently returned from Mali and neighboring countries. Their report reveals the shocking situation in the country—which starts to affect an entire region. Confronted with armed conflict, massive displacement, and a wave of political repression, the country is facing an unprecedented triple challenge that brings with it horrific abuses. There is clear evidence of human rights violations and abuses by all parties to the conflict in the North, such as the killings of captured soldiers, attacks against civilians, the recruitment and use of child soldiers and sexual violence.

One IDP who had fled the Tessalit region, told our team:

The armed fighters were Tuaregs and Arabs and amongst them were youths of less than 17 years of age, some as young as 12 years old.

mali map
Mali: Armed conflict and population movement (12 April 2012) (c) OCHA

A mother, from the northern city Gao, stated:

I saw children even younger then my own [who are 14 and 16 years old] armed and going around in cars. Others were posted at the entrance and exit of the town, on the checkpoints.

A young girl aged 16 years, who was raped in Gao, shortly after the city was seized by armed groups at the beginning April 2012, stated:

Five rebels came and took me by force, they were speaking Tamasheq and some others Songhay. They took me into the bushes and raped me. I stayed there two days. During that period, I was raped several times.

In late April, our researchers were able to talk to a human rights defender, a native of Gao, in Niger, who has documented many cases of rape:

The list is very long. Many of the cases have been identified, but the victims refuse to testify for fear of being stigmatized.

Most of the perpetrators of sexual violence have not been punished and rape victims have not received any medical care. In early May, we have continued to receive reports of rape, particularly in the Menaka region.

Mali’s Triple Crisis
Mali currently faces challenges on several fronts:

Mali: Five months of crisis
Refugees in the Gaoudel site, Ayorou Region, Niger, April 2012. (c) Amnesty International
  1. Armed conflict and rebellion in the north: A Tuareg rebellion, fueled by fighters arriving from Libya after the fall of Mouammar Gaddafi,  launched attacks against the Malian garrisons in the North of the country in early January . The armed groups did not abide by the basic principles of international humanitarian law and executed the soldiers they caught in combat. The Malian army responded by bombing indiscriminately the civilian population. Our researchers also found evidence that armed Tuareg and Islamist groups recruited child soldiers.
  2. Humanitarian Crisis:The armed conflict in the North resulted in major population displacement. At the beginning of May 2012, there were some 130 000 internally displaced people (IDP) in Mali and approximately 190 000 refugees in neighboring countries displacement (Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger). This situation was exacerbated by the humanitarian crisis already facing several countries in the region due to a food shortage currently affecting 15 million people in the Sahel. To make things worse, an increase in cases of cholera is expected across the region as the rainy season will hit Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Mali shortly.
  3. Repression of opponents to the military coup: Challenging the way in which Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré’s government was managing this conflict, a group of non-commissioned officers, led by Captain Sanogo, took power following a military coup, on 21 March 2012, suspending the Constitution and arresting several political leaders. Under pressure from ECOWAS, the military junta eventually stepped down and made space for a transitional government and a return to constitutional order. However, the new government remains largely under the influence of the military putschists. A new wave of arrests of both soldiers and civilians took place following an attempted counter-coup in Bamako by soldiers loyal to the former President Touré, on 20 April and 1 May 2012.

The most urgent need right now is for UN agencies and other relief organizations to attain immediate and unhindered access to the conflict area in the north. Civilians affected by the conflict are in urgent need of assistance; victims of rape and other sexual violence are in need of medical care. Further, all parties to the conflict must respect international humanitarian law and cease attacks against civilians.

Watch this space for future updates. For more information, visit one of these resources: