Boy interrupted

Ismail followed his flock into Mali and got caught in a crisis

By Patrick Rose with Eliane Luthi
Ismail, a young shepherd originally from Niger, lost his leg when he was tending to his animals with his brother and was caught up in an air strike. “I blacked out,” says Ismail. “I don't remember what happened. All I remember was them firing on us and our animals.” With the support of UNICEF, NGOs and local authorities, he is now recovering at a shelter for unaccompanied minors in Bamako.
UNICEF Mali/2019/Rose

07 August 2019

“We’re nomads,” says Ismail*. “We move with our animals. We follow the grazing, we follow the water.”

Ismail is from Niger and his ancestors have been tending their flocks in the Sahel for generations. This time last year, he knew preciously little about the complex security crisis on the other side of the border in Mali. Since 2012, armed groups have been vying for control of northern Mali in a violent conflict that has displaced thousands, and insecurity has now spread to the center.

Ismail and his teenage brother were wandering with their animals and crossed the Mali border as they’ve done many times before. This day, they were suddenly hit with gunfire, injuring them both.

Ismail, a young shepherd originally from Niger, writes his wish for his future, “To go back to my home,” at the UNICEF-supported shelter for unaccompanied minors where he is recovering.
UNICEF Mali/2019/Rose

“I blacked out. I don’t remember what happened. All I remember was them firing on us and our animals.”

“I blacked out,” says Ismail. “I don't remember what happened. All I remember was them firing on us and our animals.”

His brother was seriously injured, but Ismail was even more badly hit. Their livestock, their most valuable family possession, was lost in the attack. They were both taken to a hospital and doctors amputated Ismail’s leg. Ismail wells up with tears when he recalls how frightening it was when they told him they were going to remove his leg, but he accepted it as the doctor said it was the only option.  When he was released from the hospital, he found that his ordeal was far from over.  He went to detention for questioning about his activities. For Ismail, who had set out from home to look after his animals, the journey was becoming more and more terrifying.

Mali and Niger share a long border which is now fraught with insecurity. Even though Ismail’s nomadic instincts are to set off across the desert for home, the reality is far more dangerous and complex, especially now that he’s only got one leg and walks with crutches.

He's thousands of kilometers away from his home in a foreign country without any immediate prospects of returning. UNICEF support helped him get released from detention and he’s now in a UNICEF-supported center for boys who have been separated from their families. He’s getting counselling and he’s in a safe place with his brother. But they are both anxious about the future. Getting back to Niger is hard enough but finding their nomadic family in the vast desert might take years.

Even when they do make it home, Ismail will face challenges. Herding animals requires agility across rocky and sandy terrain that will be difficult with one leg. Ismail never went to school, so other finding another livelihood besides herding will prove challenging.

“We’ve seen a big spike in violence in 2019 and it’s very alarming”

Nevertheless, UNICEF and partners are ready to help him with skills training. Other boys in similar situations have gotten a métier and even accessed small grants to open a business. Some have opened boutiques and barber shops. All that is possible for Ismail, but for now, he’s in recovery from his ordeal.

Ismail’s story is one of many. “We’ve seen a big spike in violence in 2019 and it’s very alarming,” says Daniela Luciani, Child Protection Manager at UNICEF Mali.

“The data paints a very disturbing picture of more children being injured in attacks and the consequences are devastating for them and their families.”

Ismail, a young shepherd originally from Niger, writes his wish for his future, “To go back to my home,” at the UNICEF-supported shelter for unaccompanied minors where he is recovering. He lost his leg when he was tending to his animals with his brother and was caught up in an air strike. “I blacked out,” says Ismail. “I don't remember what happened. All I remember was them firing on us and our animals.”
UNICEF Mali/2019/Rose

Indeed, a sharp increase in violations against children was preliminary recorded in the first half of 2019 in Mali, notably in the areas of killing and maiming of children. With the support of donors such as Sweden, Belgium and UNICEF France, UNICEF Mali is working closely with the UN family, local authorities and NGOs to assist the most affected children.

Working with security forces to ensure no child is held in detention or injured in raids is another critical point that UNICEF continues to advocate for. The direct support to help children recover takes time, resources, skills and patience.

The vast majority of children like him have one wish: to go home and find their families.

“We’re trying to contact our family in Niger but it’s not easy,” says Ismail. “They’re always moving with the animals and I’m worried it might take years before we get to go home.”

Ismail, a young shepherd originally from Niger, writes his wish for his future, “To go back to my home,” at the UNICEF-supported shelter for unaccompanied minors where he is recovering.
UNICEF Mali/2019/Rose

*Name changed