By Helen Blakesley
It's not every day you're sent to a war zone. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. I'm not behind the lines where the military operations are going on. But I am in a country where a state of emergency has been declared.
I'm in Bamako, the capital of Mali, a country in West Africa where life expectancy is 53 years and where just 20 per cent of women can read and write. Mali is so much more than that though. It's a beautiful place where the majestic River Niger winds from dusty swathes in the north to mango trees and banana fronds in the south. A place whose music boasts a worldwide reputation. A place, until last year, held up as an example of political stability and a magnet for tourists. Sadly, it's now the subject of the biggest news story coming out of Africa - and consequently, one of the most worrying humanitarian situations too.
Last year, a number of rebel groups seized territory in the north, taking advantage of the unstable political situation in the capital. When they tried to make a move further south a few weeks ago, France heeded Mali's call for help and a military intervention began. Troops from other African countries are also arriving to bolster Mali's army.
Catholic Relief Services has been in the thick of it since the start of the crisis last April. We've been helping the tens of thousands who've fled their homes in the north-some to cross borders into neighboring countries, others to head south towards Mopti or Bamako. Last summer I visited Burkina Faso and met Malian refugees like Fadimata who was living in a shelter made of sticks and tarp in a refugee camp there. In November I sat and talked with people in their temporary homes in Bamako and this week I met more families who told me how much the CRS' help means to them.
What do they all have in common? Well, among other things, their stories never fail to touch me: stories of journeys, of leaving loved ones and possessions behind; stories of hardship and survival. I'm here to tell those stories and to support our amazing CRS Mali staff in this most difficult of situations, unprecedented for this country.
People ask me what it's like over here. Am I safe? I tell them yes, pretty much-but I'm not taking risks. I have a curfew and I don't go out far alone.
Life in Bamako goes on-people go to work, streets are swept. A man bewails his disastrous love life at a coffee kiosk. Little girls, shoeless, play at airplanes, throwing their arms out to the side of their little bodies, shouting "naaaaa".
But there is a kind of tension ... at least I can feel it. People are thinking of the north and what's happening up there. There's talk of it constantly. State TV shows images of the military with a slogan "Together with the friends of Mali in the fight against terrorism". Expats are told to avoid large hotels for fear of bombings and are warned of the heightened kidnap threat.
I woke with a start one night, to the belch of what sounded like a ship's horn and the incessant, angry hum of helicopters. My heart racing, I was convinced we were being invaded. So were the local dogs who were all howling in unison.
I count myself lucky though, to be tucked away in the capital. Talking to journalists about the situation further north. They tell me stories of excruciatingly long, dusty drives, sleeping in cars or bedding down in simple rooms.
Through it all, our CRS staff carry on their work. Going town to town, trying to determine the needs of people who have fled. Other staffers are working with partners to try and secure more funding. Whatever their role, and wherever they're posted, I've been touched by the bravery and stoicism of the CRS team. What they've seen has been sometimes pretty horrific, what they've endured is not for the faint hearted. Above all, their sheer hard work leaves me in awe.
As I write, the electricity in my hotel has gone again. The sun's about to go down over the sandy red streets of my corner of Bamako. I'm praying the battery on my laptop will last so I can watch a film before I sleep.
Helen Blakesley is CRS' regional information officer for West and Central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal. Photo by Helen Blakesley/CRS