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French and Malian flags are flying throughout the capital city of Bamako today after French troops helped to liberate northern Mali from the radical Islamists who have occupied the region for almost a year. On Sunday, January 27, French and African troops took back the city of Gao, where jihadists used the Gao School of Nursing—once a thriving educational institution—as a base of operations. The next day, the troops liberated the ancient desert city of Timbuktu.
As the troops advance, stories of intense suffering, looting, and the destruction of precious, ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu are coming to light. And while spirits are high in Mali today, not all is back to normal in the north.
Many roads to and in the region are still blocked. Food is expensive and difficult to find. And hospitals in Gao, Mopti, and Timbuktu are closed to the public while the facilities are used to treat injured soldiers. Officials say the hospitals will reopen to the public shortly. Until then, local Malians look to community health centers for care.
The conflict will have long-term consequences for northern Mali’s health systems, says IntraHealth International’s country director Cheick Touré.
“It could take a decade for the region to recover,” Touré says from IntraHealth’s office in Bamako. “In the past, when health workers were sent to the north, it was considered punishment. If you did something wrong in your job, they sent you to spend five years in the north. It took two decades to change this mentality, to help people think of it more positively and say, ‘This part of our country is difficult, but it is also Mali. If I work there, I will save people. I will be able to do good things.’”
Most health workers who were not originally from the north fled when the conflict began. Attracting surgeons and other specialists to live and serve in northern Mali will now be more difficult than ever.
In the days leading up to the French intervention, Touré and his colleagues were getting more and more nervous about the safety of twenty-two obstetric fistula1 patients in Mopti. The women were being cared for in a hospital there through the Fistula Care Project after spending many months without care in the north. Several had been preparing for or recovering from surgery when they were forced out of their hospital beds in March, 2012, as the radicals seized Gao.
The radicals were closing in on Mopti last week as they expanded into the south. Touré and his colleagues were hashing out the details of a safe transport for the women when news of the French airstrikes came. It was, he says, a great relief.
Three of the obstetric fistula patients who disappeared from the hospital in Gao are still missing. The Fistula Care Project and GREFFA, a local nongovernmental organization and project partner, will continue to look for the women.
The Gao School of Nursing is closed for the time being. It could be six months or more before it reopens, Touré says. Not only will there be damages to repair and faculty to pay, but many former students may not have the resources to return to school right away.
Since 2006, IntraHealth has worked with the school to produce more health workers for the northern region. Now, as Mali begins its recovery from the conflict, it needs home-grown health workers more than ever.
The Fistula Care Project is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and led by EngenderHealth. IntraHealth International is a partner in the project and manages its work in Mali.