After the horror, the trauma
Survivors of a brutal attack in Mali need help healing, inside and out.
MOPTI, Mali – Bouakary remembers when nine-year-old Mamadou* arrived at the regional hospital in Mopti. Anyone would. “His eyes were red, and he could hardly speak,” he says. “The only thing he could say was: ‘They killed my mother in front of my eyes.’”
Mamadou had been evacuated by ambulance from the village of Ogossagou in central Mali on 23 March. His arm was broken after a bullet hit him during an attack on the village that left over 150 people dead, including 46 children. Dozens more women and children suffered gunshot wounds or severe burns as sheds, granaries and even homes were set alight by the attackers.
“They killed my mother in front of my eyes”
The attack was part of a broader trend since the second half of 2018, which has seen an unprecedented deterioration of the protection situation in central Mali. But while attacks – including killings, maimings, and the abductions and recruitment of children – have been on the rise, the incident in Ogossagou was unprecedented in terms of the number of children killed.
“This is the worst incident I’ve ever seen,” says Aissata Dirabo, Head of Social Services at the regional hospital in the city of Mopti. “Everyone needed clothes, because their own clothes were torn up and stained in blood.”
What’s more, many of the children in Ogossagou, a two-hour drive from Mopti, have never been vaccinated, don’t have birth certificates, and have never been to school. In short, the community was extremely vulnerable even before the attack.
Now, a few weeks after being evacuated from their village, some of the injured children still have small bullets lodged in their bodies.
Ahmadou*, 15, is one of the children that was shot during the attack.
“I wanted to go back to my house, but then they caught me,” Ahmadou says. “One of [the attackers] said, ‘don’t kill him, he has to see his house is burning’. Others said our throats should be slashed. I was so scared when I heard that...They started shooting at me, in the neck, and I fell. Then they shot me in the stomach.”
“This is the worst incident I’ve ever seen”
Pascal Togo, a protection officer at UNICEF’s field office in Mopti, says that when he first arrived at the hospital, it didn’t have enough beds for the victims who were arriving by ambulance. “There was nothing,” he says. “Dozens of patients were sitting on the floor of the emergency ward.”
Pascal says UNICEF worked with partner NGO COOPI to arrange for basic supplies during the first few days, including mattresses and food. “There was no water, so we brought in clean drinking water right away.”
A multi-pronged response
But securing immediate medical assistance was only part of the response. Pascal says that as the young victims of the attack arrived, it was obvious that most were traumatized by what they had witnessed, and that the hospital would need additional support from social workers and psychologists. With UNICEF support, COOPI deployed an additional social worker and provided development kits with toys and games to try to give children some sense of normalcy.
Mamadou, whose mother was killed during the attack, arrived at the hospital severely injured and in a state of shock. But with the support of the new social worker Bouakary, he is slowly starting to speak – and play again.
Ahmadou is also showing signs of progress, his father says as the two of them sit together telling fairytales. “When my son first arrived, he kept saying ‘they are coming, they are coming.’ He was afraid the attackers would come here and find him in the hospital,” his father says. “I’m very happy with how my son’s condition is improving, especially with [the head of social services] Aissata’s help.”
Ahmadou’s father says that despite the attack, they still hope to be able to return to their village. “We lost almost all our animals,” he says. “But it’s still our home, even if our house was burned down.”
*Name has been changed.
The crisis in Mali remains one of the most underfunded in the world, with almost 400,000 children estimated to be in dire need of protection services. UNICEF in Mali is appealing for funding to bring support to the families that need it most and to respond to the spike in child protection needs.