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A Timbuktu Doctor on the Horrors of Providing Care under Jihadist Occupation

“When the Islamist militants came to town, Dr. Ibrahim Maiga made a reluctant deal. He would do whatever they asked—treat their wounded, heal their fevers, bandage up without complaint the women they thrashed in the street for failing to cover their heads and faces. In return, they would allow him to keep the hospital running as he wished.”

That’s from an article in today’s New York Times, “Timbuktu Endured Terror Under Harsh Shariah Law.” When radical Islamists invaded Timbuktu on April 1, 2012—and immediately set to looting markets, raping women, and killing anyone who tried to stop them—health workers such as Dr. Maiga had no choice but to do what the radicals commanded and try to care for the people they hurt along the way.

When the Islamists called on him to attend a sharia-style punishment, Dr. Maiga was powerless to refuse. He couldn’t help the screaming young man and certainly couldn’t stop the Islamists from hacking away the supposed-offender’s hand. All Dr. Maiga could do was watch as the jihadists lifted the man’s amputated hand in the air, shouting “God is great,” and then usher the injured young man away for cauterization and painkillers.

Now that French and Malian troops have freed northern Mali from the radical Islamists who’ve occupied the region for the past 10 months, more and more stories like Dr. Maiga’s—of unspeakable anguish, trauma, and loss—will come to light.

“As the troops advance,” says IntraHealth International’s country director Cheick Touré from IntraHealth’s office in Bamako, Mali, “stories are revealed about the suffering people have endured, the looting, the burning of precious and ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, and our hearts break over and over again.”

Most of the health workers in the northern region left soon after the fighting began (with the exception of those who were born in the north, and their numbers are few). Those surgeons and other specialists who once agreed to spend time in northern Mali—a harsh, sparsely populated part of the country—may never feel safe enough to return. This leaves northerners with almost no specialized care and with a crippling shortage of skilled health workers of any kind.

Mali has a lot of hard work ahead. Many of the radicals who escaped the French airstrikes are now thought to be hiding out-of-reach in the Sahara. If African troops can keep them from returning to the northern Mali’s cities, the country’s health sector may finally be able to begin its slow, difficult recovery.


Read more of IntraHealth’s coverage of the conflict in Mali