‘Mali refugees have seen rebels cut off hands’
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More than 2,500 refugees have streamed across the border since France began a military intervention in Mali on January 11. UNHCR spokesman William Spindler says refugees share “horrific” stories of life under the Islamists’ occupation.
Humanitarian organisations have been largely denied access to war zones in central and northern Mali, where a joint French-Malian air and ground offensive to dislodge Islamist rebels is underway.
Some of the scant information that exists about what life is like beyond the frontline has come from Malian refugees fleeing the fighting. Many speak of extortion and the recruitment of child soldiers under the jihadist’s occupation.
France 24 spoke to William Spindler, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about the growing refugee crisis in Mali and about what his agency has learned from those fleeing the violence.
France 24: Have you observed a spike in the number of refugees since France’s military deployment in Mali?
William Spindler: The fighting, which began on January 10, clearly set off the exodus of hundreds of Malians. In the past week we have documented 2,744 new refugees in neighbouring countries, including 1,411 in Mauritania, 848 in Burkina Faso and 485 in Niger 485.
In total, since jihadists overran northern Mali last year, we estimate the number of Malian refugees at 147,000, with 55,000 in Mauritania, 39,000 in Burkina Faso, 53,000 in Niger and 1,500 in Algeria. We fear the figure could rise by as much as 400,000 refugees.
What information have you gathered from refugees?
W.S.: The stories from refugees are horrific. Some were whipped by Islamists, others saw rebels cut off hands. Children under 12 are being recruited by the rebels. The refugees also speak of abuses by the Malian army against people they suspect of being Islamists. The situation is very worrying.
Is it possible to confirm this information?
W.S.: No, we are not able to check because it is very difficult for humanitarian organisations to enter the area. Only organisations that already had staff on the ground are present. International NGOs have not yet been given access to the combat zones since the French army launched its offensive.
What do refugees say about why they have left their homes?
W. S.: First, they cite the bombings that began with the French army’s intervention, followed by the enforcement of (Islamic) Sharia law. Finally there is the humanitarian crisis, lack of food and water.
The situation will only worsen because of growing difficulties in transportation, especially between the cities of Mopti and Gao. We also fear an increase in the number of internally displaced people, which we currently estimate at 229,000.