U.N. Official Sees Desperation, Hunger and Fear on Visit to Mali

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A top United Nations relief official who just returned from a trip to northern Mali said Tuesday that desperation, hunger and fear had pervaded the region in the year since Islamist militant extremists seized control, and that only $17 million of the organization's appeal for $373 million in emergency aid had been donated so far.

The official, John Ging, the operations director of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said some conditions had begun to improve in northern Mali since a French-led military operation began last month in an effort to expunge the militants from cities like Gao and Timbuktu. But Mr. Ging said that during his four-day trip to the northern part of Mali, an area twice the size of Germany, he had heard harrowing tales of rapes, amputations and brutalities committed against children.

He said that many Malians had been terrorized by the violence committed by the militants, and that many were fearful of ethnic reprisals by Malian government troops, who presumably will retake control of northern Mali as forces from France and a coalition of other African nations extend their campaign to rout the militants.

"People of the north are traumatized by the past year," Mr. Ging told reporters at the United Nations. He said some of the accounts of violence he heard had "moved men to tears; it's really very raw and heartfelt."

Mr. Ging said that at least 700,000 children had been affected by the chaos in northern Mali and that at least 200,000 had gone without any education after January 2012 because many schools were damaged or closed by militants who imposed a violent and repressive version of Islamic law. One of the biggest problems, he said, was that most teachers fled the north after groups of armed Islamists, including Al Qaeda's regional affiliate, overran the region. "The numbers are huge and the disruption very profound," he said.

At least 585,000 people, he said, "are in need of immediate food assistance."

Mr. Ging said that 431,000 people had fled northern Mali since January 2012, and that many were reluctant to return out of concern for their own security. Among Malians who stayed, he said, "there is less confidence that the conflict is behind them -- they are very fearful."

An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Islamist militant fighters have retreated to areas in the mountainous reaches of northern Mali since the French-led campaign began in mid-January to halt and reverse their southward surge. France, the former colonial power in Mali, is eager to relinquish its leadership role, however. French officials have said a withdrawal of French troops, which total about 4,000, might begin in a few weeks.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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