Sekou becomes wistful when I ask him about his village. “Before, things were good. At night, we’d sit around the campfire and tell stories with our parents. And during the day, we’d dance and play the drums.”
He comes from a tiny village in Mopti, the central region of Mali that has increasingly become the theater of violence and insecurity.
12-year-old Sekou and I are sitting in the Child-Friendly Space (CFS) UNICEF has set up with the Government of Mali in the main camp for internally displaced people in Gao. Thousands of children have been displaced following a spate of attacks in Mopti region, and hundreds of them have ended up in the volatile northern region of Gao.
Sekou’s own story is heartbreaking. Both his mother and father were killed in an attack. Terrified he and his siblings would also be killed, he fled with his 8-year-old sister, following neighbors who were heading north. It took them 10 days of walking to get to a main town, when a passing car brought them the rest of the way to Gao.
“Some days we found something to eat, but other days we didn’t,” he tells me.
I ask him how he managed to keep going.
“My father always used to tell me to stay strong,” he says. “So I kept telling myself, I have to stay strong for my sister.”
Once he arrived in Gao, Sekou’s nights were filled with dreams of his parents. He barely spoke. He showed little interest in games or making new friends.
Salimata, one of the social workers at the CFS, tells me many of the displaced children she’s been taking care of have shown similar signs of trauma, particularly those that have lost their parents.
“Sometimes, a child might see a father pick up his child from school, and she’ll just stand there and watch, with tears in her eyes.”
Grave violations against children are on the increase in Mali – in particular, children are being killed and maimed, armed groups are using children in combat, but also as spies, messengers, and sexual slaves; there are also attacks and threats on schools and teachers. In the first half of 2019, twice as many children were killed as in the entire year of 2018, and over 1,200 schools are now closed, the vast majority of them in Mopti.
But a less-discussed aspect of children affected by armed conflict is their mental health.
Experiencing and witnessing extreme violence can leave long-term scars on children, affecting their ability to grow up healthy and emotionally fulfilled. Some of the children I’ve met deal with recurring nightmares or insomnia, some stop talking altogether, and others jump at everyday sights and sounds, such as a lone motorcycle passing.
Psychological support for these children is crucial. Having a safe space where they can express themselves, confide in trained social workers about their thoughts and fears, and where they can rebuild a sense of safety and trust in others is critical to their recovery. Thanks to the support of partners like Sweden, Denmark and UNICEF France, UNICEF is setting up dozens of Child-Friendly Spaces in crisis-affected areas of Mali, bringing psychosocial support to more than 45,000 children.
In Salimata’s space, Sekou plays the drums while his friends dance to the beat. At one point, he abandons his drum and just joins in the dance. The children here aren’t just having fun, they’re constantly supporting each other, applauding or cheering whenever one of their friends recites the alphabet or counts all the way to 100. By the time I’ve left, they’ve even learned my name and are cheering me for visiting them.
Extreme violence can never be erased from a child’s memory, especially if they’ve witnessed an event as traumatizing as the killing of a beloved family member. But we can do so much to restore hope, just by offering children the tailored support they need to start rebuilding their sense of a childhood.
Eliane Luthi is Chief of Communications at UNICEF in Mali