While French and Malian troops continue their drive to force rebels out of major centers in northern Mali, World Vision communications manager Maria Mutya Frio spoke to those who have fled conflict zones.
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I am face to face with the displaced Malians who shake my hand and look me in the eye as they share their stories. Suddenly the statistics on TV have a human face.
Namina* escaped from Timbuktu with her three daughters. Her neighbor and their 16-year-old daughter, Sata, were not so fortunate.
“I saw a group of rebels came to the house and take Sata by force,” Namina says. “They gave her parents 10,000 francs [$20] to ‘marry’ Sata. The rebels said the parents had no choice and that they were taking Sata to where they lived. The girl was weeping and tried to tear herself away from her captors. Her mother was weeping. But the rebels, they came with guns.”
One day at the rebel camp, Sata got hold of a mobile phone while the rebels were away. She called her family and told them that she was in a house preparing food for her captors. The rebels told her that she was the wife of one man, but Sata claimed other men raped her.
“She tried to escape once, but it was impossible,” Namina says. “If she did, and the rebels found her, they would take her and all her family members to a rebels’ prison.”
By midday, I am talking to Fatou, 16, who also left Timbuktu with her mother. There is fear in her eyes but a quiet strength surfaces when she decides to tell her story.
“One day, my mother sent me to the market. I knew that girls were supposed to wear a scarf to cover our heads. But that day I was not wearing one, and the ‘rebellion police’ saw me,” she says. “They beat me up, and then they sent me home.”
Fatou told her mother about the incident. They decided to leave immediately with nothing but the clothes they wore. Fatou says some girls caught without scarves were given 100 lashes.
Boys also suffer. Namina tells of a young boy called Mohammed who was recruited as a child soldier. “These boys are very traumatized because they are taught how to use guns and how to fight,” Namina says.
The children see people whose hands or feet are being cut off by rebels. Escaping from a rebel camp can mean execution.
Families do not know the fate of their children as government forces retake key cities and former rebel strongholds.
I, too, wonder where the Satas and the Mohammeds of this world are. I say a prayer for these lost girls and boys who should be in school holding books, not guns.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals mentioned in this story.
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