The Malian crisis may have fallen off the news agenda since French forces led an operation to oust Islamist militants out of the region in January but instability and violence is still present in many communities, particularly in the North including Timbuktu.
Earlier this month Hay-on-Wye welcomed their Malian partners to Wales. The residents of Hay were able to hear first hand about the current situation from midwives and teachers from Timbuktu.
Here is a brief account from Arhaima, a midwife from Timbuktu about her visit to Wales and the challenges she is facing at home.
Voice of a midwife
Arhaima reacted to her first visit to a British hospital with disbelief. It was a very different scene to the basic health centres in her native Mali. “There is so much equipment here” she said. “What do they do with it all? Everything looks so new and clean… in Timbuktu we have nothing, only the bare minimum.”
Arhaima was one of two midwives who visited Hay on Wye, the twin town of Timbuktu, in autumn 2013. Her story was typical of many who live in the city, in the north of Mali. Since the Islamist invasion, and its subsequent overthrow by forces led by the French, life has been a constant battle for the people there.
Midwifery has also had to adapt since the crisis in Timbuktu. As Arhaima explains, “Before, it was very rare to see abortions but now there are many, as women became pregnant due to rape perpetrated by the terrorists. More women have died during childbirth due to poor hygiene and lack of nutrients. During the occupation there were times when the terrorists would not let women into the clinics to give birth, some had their babies at the side of the road. Hygiene and nutrition are very poor in Timbuktu, and many babies are born with malnutrition.”
Of course on many levels life has improved significantly since the occupation. Women can now leave their homes and wear their choice of clothes without reprisals of rape and violence. However, the psychological trauma has not disappeared and there is little help for women to overcome their fears. Arhaima spoke movingly of the fear felt by women in Timbuktu of the dreaded “red van.”
“During the crisis, a red van would patrol the streets, taking any ‘improperly dressed’ or unaccompanied women to prison, where they would face three days of, often sexual, violence. On their release they would be publicly flogged in the town centre. Even though the terrorists have left, the red van has not. Its presence in the town inflicts fear on the women and reminds them of the terrible events.”
When they return to Mali, Arhaima and her colleague will have invaluable training from their trip to Hay on Wye. In return, they have left first-hand accounts of the human cost of the conflict in Timbuktu. News stories of foreign lands are notoriously difficult to comprehend in the west. For the people of Hay, however, this visit from their twin town was an opportunity to learn the true nature of their struggle for freedom. The basic standards we take for granted are a luxury in Timbuktu, and work goes on to support our friends overseas in this difficult time.
See the BBC's coverage of the visit.