Mali (MNN) — Thousands are fleeing from Mali's north to the south because of fears of ethnic reprisals by government troops, undermining efforts to reunite their war-torn homeland.
The United Nations says over the last three months, at least 20,000 civilians have trekked westward to the Mbera refugee camp. They joined 54,000 others who already fled to Mauritania when the rebels seized northern Mali in April 2012 and went on to impose a violent form of sharia law.
The security situation in Mali has deteriorated enough that the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon says a peacekeeping force is needed. He suggested that up to 11,200 troops could be needed for a UN peacekeeping mission. He also said a "parallel" military force would have to battle the radical Islamists.
France sent troops to Mali in January to stop Islamists. Along with Tuareg separatists, they overran northern Mali a year ago, taking advantage of a vacuum left after a military coup. As a result, many people fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs and whatever belongings they could carry. Some families walked many miles in the dark over desolate terrain to a river where canoes took them three hours to safety.
Baptist Global Response Executive Director Jeff Palmer says, "They're trying to find places that are safe for the family. The movement, of course, is from north to south, so there's quite a bit of movement outside of the country as well, into neighboring areas."
Their partners say these families are in serious need of help in shelter, children's education, and basic nutrition. BGR is responding as best they can through the local churches. "Recently, we've had a project with about 480 families coming south, fleeing the North. Part of it is the war; part of it is the hunger that they're experiencing. With war, and with armed conflict, access to goods becomes limited."
It is the local churches that are helping the overlooked, notes Palmer. "They don't have a lot of people that would step in and help them locally because of the predominant culture that' s already there. But we've been able to step in with some local churches and partners in the south and respond to those who are moving down and leaving everything they have." BGR is helping find "some basic shelter for them, and basics like food and health and hygiene kits."
Palmer says these efforts come at a time when people are in despair. Their church partners are asking for prayer as they respond and care for people. The hope of Christ dovetails with what they're doing, too, he adds. "It fits in, first of all, with a cup of cold water, bread for the hungry people: the demonstration of the Gospel…in other words, demonstrating Christ's love to those who are helpless and hopeless."
The other part is relationship building: it's "life on life," Palmer goes on to say. The uncertainty creates an opening. "It causes a time of question and a time of pause in people's lives to look for answers when they don't have any."
Palmer says, "We are a people who serve a God who has the answer in His son Jesus Christ."
Pray that they speak clearly when communicating with the villagers. Those they helped really didn't care much who they were, but they cared that they were people who cared about them, says Palmer. "It's those who are followers of Christ, ministering to those, just showing them the love of Christ. Then it comes down to sharing life stories: sharing the truth, the hope that's in the Gospel."