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A Mother's Journey to Save Her Son

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Fatoumata Zahara looks down at her son on the bed beside her. Two-year-old Salim is in a bad way and she is scared to touch him as it causes him pain. His body is swollen all over and his stretched skin has burst in painful bruise-coloured lesions.

Fatoumata travelled a long way to get her baby to the Segou health centre in Bamako, Mali. She fled her home in Gao after the region fell under armed groups control. As conflict erupted her husband was shot dead by a stray bullet. Residents in Gao are in survival mode and over 15 per cent of children under five in the region - almost 20,000 children - are suffering from acute malnutrition.

Salim is suffering from a form of severe acute malnutrition called kwashiorkor, where the body swells and muscles are severely weakened, resulting in excruciating cramping. A severely malnourished child with kwashiorkor is at high risk of death and even if treated successfully, physical and mental development may be affected in the long term.

Following the closure of the Algeria-Mali border, an already isolated Gao has seen severe restrictions in the flow of goods as key commercial routes between Mopti and Gao shut down. The only open supply route remains on the river and roads between Gao and Niger, but rumours of Niger's planned armed intervention could cut off this last supply path for food, medicine and other essentials to enter Mali.

Fatoumata says: "Before long I had nothing, I could not even make a small bowl of porridge for my baby and could not take him to hospital as I did not have money for the transport to go there. Thanks to a friend of my mother I was given a free bus ticket to Bamako. My mother was too old to make the trip with us and so remains alone in Gao. I am very concerned for her but I had to leave as by this time my son could not even open his eyes, they were so swollen."

As Fatoumata left Gao on the bus, she looked back and saw airplanes bombing the skies behind her. Clutching her baby tight, tears stung her cheeks but she says she was relieved to finally get Salim away from the violence and towards a hospital.

Action Against Hunger reports that Gao has seen a price increase of 38% on millet, 31% on rice and 25% on cooking oil in recent months. The NGO is concerned that the increased isolation of the North will impact on access to much needed food and humanitarian supplies.

Action Against Hunger's country director in Mali, Franck Vannetelle, says: "Everyone in Gao is talking about the food shortages and people are extremely worried. This new phase of conflict is adding to the fragility of the population and the worst is still to come. What is happening in northern Mali is dramatically worsening the situation in the rest of the country, where communities were already fragile."

Save the Children warns that children and women forced to flee for their lives are among the poorest and most vulnerable in the country.

Fatoumata's troubles did not end when she left Gao. On the way to Bamako her bus was attacked by rebels. All of the passengers were forced off and Fatoumata found herself in the middle of nowhere, frightened and alone with her very sick son, who by now could barely stay awake.

Luckily, a man who was also fleeing Gao drove past and seeing the desperate state of Salim, he offered to drive the mother and baby the rest of the way.

"My child saved me that day," says Fatoumata. "Without him, no one would have stopped to pick me up. Now it's my turn to save him."

When Fatoumata arrived in Bamako she took Salim to the health centre, one of 14 where Action Against Hunger is diagnosing and treating malnourished children in the region. The team immediately admitted Salim for intensive round the clock specialist care. After a few days his swellings are beginning to go down and the pain is subsiding slowly. He has a long way to go but the team hopes that with time he will recover.

Fatoumata says: "I really hurt in my heart for everything that has happened. I do not know what we will do next but we will have to stay in Bamako until there is peace in the north."

How long she will have to wait, no one can tell her.