Mali northerners cut off from outside help

Fears of abuses in north, with humanitarian groups unable to access the area to provide food, water or medicine.

Bamako, Mali – Since the French military weighed in on the Mali conflict on January 11, the Malian army has managed to rapidly retake much of the territory from the armed groups that had taken large swaths of the north. 

Southern Malians are celebrating their last-minute deliverance from the grips of the three self-described Islamist groups that had occupied the north of the country for the past 10 months.

In the north, meanwhile, humanitarian organisations are yet to gain access to help the tens of thousands of people caught up in the aftermath of the fighting, or ahead of the advancing frontline.

About 12,000 people have been displaced since January 10, according to the latest figures from the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Three-quarters of them have fled to neighbouring countries, joining the 142,900 Malians in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger last year.

Sources from several humanitarian organisations told Al Jazeera that there were worrying reports of people being denied freedom of movement. This explains, at least in part, why the number of those who had sought refuge in the south is so low.

Some 3,599 people are believed to have been internally displaced in Mopti, Segou and Bamako, says OCHA. There were 228,920 Malians internally displaced by the conflict in 2012.

The Algerian-Malian border has been officially closed since December for security reasons, and Niger is also considering shutting its border. The UN Humanitarian Air Services has shut down its flights within the country too, meaning there are few ways to get food, water or medicine into the area.

“What we’re concerned about is what might be happening in the north, because the borders have been sealed and supplies are not coming in to that region,” David Gressy, OCHA, Regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Sahel, told Al Jazeera in Bamako.

“This must be putting a lot of pressure on families that have remained behind,” he said, noting that those who were unable to travel far tend to be the poorest.

Many in the north who have left the urban areas ahead of the fighting are staying in family camps in the surrounding countryside, where they are unlikely to have many supplies.

Like most NGOs, Oxfam, an international organisation that focuses on fighting poverty, has had to rely solely on its local partners living in the north for information and fieldwork.

There are also fears that, as the armed groups make a rapid retreat, they will likely commit rights abuses in refugee camps.

“The risk of forced recruitments, recruitment of children, and sexual violence is very high,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Oxfam’s campaign manager in Mali. “There needs to be a monitoring system.”

While security concerns are legitimate, Allegrozzi said that it was important that the humanitarian rights of civilians also be taken seriously.

“Anyone not carrying weapons should be given freedom of movement,” she said. “A civilian is someone who does not have weapons on him.”

To read about reports of reprisal executions by the Malian army read: “Mali’s north faces a new fear”