It’s been two years since I last covered a conflict in west Africa. Last time around, I was in Ivory Coast and heavy fighting erupted following contested elections.
More than a million people were forced from their homes and countless children were reduced to living in squalid conditions, restricted to makeshift camps without adequate shelter or access to basic healthcare or education.
Last year I travelled back to west Africa, this time because a large-scale food crisis was hitting huge swathes of the Sahel region, rendering more than 18 million people dangerously at risk of hunger.
Young and vulnerable
As I learned the hard way, it was the youngest children who were most vulnerable to succumbing to this devastating crisis.
One young boy I met in intensive care in Niger tragically died a mere two hours after his mother spoke to me about her hope that he would grow strong and healthy again.
This year, I’ve found myself in Mali. And whether or not you can believe it, things are even worse.
The children here aren’t affected just by a conflict or a food crisis – they’re affected by both.
To use the words of Save the Children’s Country Director for Mali, this has become a crisis within a crisis.
The children I’ve spoken to in the past week will tell me horrors they’ve witnessed and experienced – things that no child should see or go through – and in the next breath, will describe the pain in their stomachs that comes from not hours, but days or even weeks of hunger.
In my head and in my heart
One fifteen-year-old boy, Omar, stands out in my mind. His story has stayed with me, turning around in my head and my heart every day since he first confided it to me.
The afternoon I met Omar, he told me about seeing the corpses of two dead military men, witnessing people being killed, and handling weapons.
“They were killing people, killing people everywhere. I saw these things with my own eyes. I saw dead bodies, at the military camp.
“I went there to pick up what the military had left behind – the weapons they had left. I found guns…”
One year after first fleeing his hometown, Omar is living with his family, displaced in a small town in the south of Mali.
A bite to eat
We take a break from talking as he’s being called for lunch. Less than five minutes later, he’s back again. I tell him he must be a quick eater – but his mother laughs bitterly and explains:
“It’s not because he is quick, it’s because there is almost nothing.” I turn to Omar and ask him what he had to eat.
“I had rice and sauce,” he answers. He waits a beat, and then adds quietly, “…but I’m still not full.”
His mother leans in, and decides to show to me exactly what the problem is.
She cups her hand and pushes forward, close to my face. “This is how much there is.”
It is, quite literally, only a handful of lunch.