Far from home but ready for school

Leila’s village was attacked and her family fled for their lives, leaving behind everything she knew

By Patrick Rose with Eliane Luthi
UNICEF Mali/2019/Rose

07 August 2019

Leila* sits on a mat in the tent provided by UNICEF in an informal settlement for displaced people outside of Mopti. She's not in school yet, but they are putting up a school tent nearby that will open soon.

“I’ve not been in school for months,” she says. “I’m excited that we’ll have a school so close.”

UNICEF Mali/2019/Rose

She's been there for about three months. In the crowded site, shrouded with sorrow of a people displaced, Leila is far from the happy childhood she once knew. A light flickers behind the sadness in the eyes as she speaks.

“We used to go to the well and get water and we used to play games there. It was a lot of fun”

“We used to go to the well to get water and we would play games there,” Leila says. “We could stay out and splash with each other and laugh. It was a lot of fun.”

She comes from the Mopti region of Mali. She was happy in school and really liked studying math. Her region had been safe even while the security crisis engulfed the north, but now the conflict is moving south, closer to Leila’s home.

UNICEF Mali/2019/Mounkoro

“We heard that the neighboring village was attacked,” Leila says. “Everyone was on edge and our school was closed for about four or five days. We stayed home.”

Attacks between different ethnic groups in central Mali have become tragically common. Raids in the middle of the night and the early morning hours catch villagers unaware. Their livestock are slaughtered or stolen, food stores are burned, and families are killed. These terror tactics have displaced thousands of people across central Mali and impacted children just like Leila.

“We just heard men shouting and screaming and we heard lots of gunfire,” Leila says. “We ran, and as I looked back I saw everything burning.”

“We just heard men shouting and screaming and we heard lots of gunfire”

UNICEF Mali/2019/Rose

Leila ran with her family to the next village. They were scattered and terrified, trying to make sure everyone was safe.

“The next day we went back to the village,” Leila says. “There was nothing left, just the ashes of our homes.”

Leila’s village was burned to the ground. Attacks like this one now occur with alarming regularity in central Mali.

The violence is driving a wave of displacement of people just like Leila looking for safety. Nearly 50,000 people are now displaced in the Mopti region, according to the Government and IOM. The vast majority of these are children, who are now far away from their homes, their schools and their lives. Thanks to the support of humanitarian partners, UNICEF and the UN family are working with local authorities and NGOs to assist the most affected children, including those who are not in official displacement camps or who are staying in host families.

In the informal settlement in Sévaré town, Leila and her family are safe, but without their crops and their chickens, getting enough to eat is a challenge.

Leila is looking forward to going back to school, but her life is far from what is used to be. Everyone in the settlement is coping with the trauma of violence and displacement, and some families are coming to terms with the loss of their loved ones.

While Leila faces a lot of challenges, she has benefited from some critical interventions at this point in her life. UNICEF and local authorities in Mopti helped her family by providing shelter, water and medicine in the settlement. There’s a special tent for games and psychosocial support to help kids get back into the healing power of play. Through a mixture of songs, activities and learning, UNICEF partner COOPI, through trained social workers, psychologists and animators, is helping children find their smiles by giving them a space be children once again.

UNICEF Mali/2019/Rose

But her family is still waiting for news of her uncle, who is missing and presumed dead. He encouraged Leila to study hard and do well in school and now that he’s gone, she misses him terribly. For her, going back to learning is not just a way of reestablishing a sense of normalcy. It’s a way of remembering her uncle and living up to her promise to him.

*Name changed