Tuesday, July 9, 2013 | 2:03 a.m.
TIMBUKTU, Mali — It’s time for my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student with me on a reporting trip to Africa. So I’m here in Timbuktu, the ancient crossroads of the Sahara, with Erin Luhmann, a journalism student from the University of Wisconsin, navigating roadblocks and jittery soldiers in a city that Islamist militants ruled until early this year.
It’s still tense, and many Malians fear that militants in an al-Qaida African affiliate could return with their hijacked, extremist distortion of Islam. Al-Qaida extremists antagonized the public by closing schools, banning music, destroying monuments, flogging citizens and arresting women for not fully veiling themselves or going to the market without a male relative.
The mood seems to be: Thank God for France! When the United States and the rest of the world dithered and al-Qaida was poised to capture all of Mali, France dispatched troops and quickly drove the Islamists out into the desert. Left behind was a trove of documents such as one found by The Associated Press in which al-Qaida bosses scolded a commander for lagging in his expense reports. Who knew that even terrorists have to file expenses?
Yet, while Erin and I found the killing over, the dying continues on a vast scale — from hunger.
Many Malians are always on the edge of starvation, and the fighting and insecurity have pushed some over the brink. We saw an 18-month-old boy, Aljou Aguel, who was so malnourished and deprived of protein that skin had peeled off his legs.
It must have been extremely painful, but, like other starving children, he did not cry. A child who is dying of hunger is like a zombie, barely responsive, with a glazed expression. The body saves every bit of energy to keep major organs functioning; not a calorie is to be wasted by crying.
The World Food Program, which is trying to alleviate the shortages, estimates that one child an hour is now dying of malnutrition in Mali — a far higher toll than that lost in the warfare itself. Some 1.4 million Malians are at risk, it says.
In a village outside Timbuktu, Erin and I met a woman named Bintu Dicku who has already lost four of her 10 children and seemed close to losing a fifth. Her youngest, Ghaisha, is 7 months old and suffering from severe malnutrition.
“Every month she loses weight,” Bintu Dicku told us, at a gathering to distribute World Food Program rations to families with small children. “Her only chance is this food distribution.”
The hunger is closely linked to politics. Bintu Dicku said that family members used to earn money as day laborers so that they could buy food in the markets. But with the al-Qaida occupation and subsequent insecurity, the economy has collapsed, and there are no jobs or opportunities to make money.
In the past, family members supplemented market-bought food with their own crops or fish that they caught. But now, they say, it is too dangerous to farm or fish, and women are afraid of going out alone for fear of being accused by Islamists of being un-Islamic.
“When you go outside, you might run into armed groups,” she said. “The Islamists always have a problem with you not being dressed right, or not having a beard if you’re a man. There’s always trouble.”
And so Ghaisha is starving.
While the world closely followed events in Mali when bullets were flying, it has been much less interested in quiet deaths from hunger. The World Food Program has raised only a bit more than half the money it seeks for Mali.
Across North and West Africa, encompassing countries from Mauritania to Libya, Mali to northern Nigeria, Islamic extremism poses a basic risk to stability.
The poverty and insecurity feed into each other. Because the region is poor and suffers widespread illiteracy, it is ripe for manipulation by Islamic extremists who claim to speak for religion. The lack of government services also creates openings for smuggling and corruption.
Islamic extremists gained a foothold in Timbuktu through cigarette smuggling (even though they banned smoking when they took power), the lucrative kidnapping of Westerners, and narcotics trafficking. One of northern Mali’s most remarkable sights is a Boeing 727 marooned in the desert: It was used by narcotics traffickers and, by some accounts, landed for drugs to be off-loaded but then became mired in the sand and couldn’t take off again.
Stay alert to the risks of Islamists and groups affiliated with al-Qaida in West Africa and North Africa, but don’t overlook the twinned humanitarian challenges. Bombs and machine guns draw television cameras, but the most lethal and immediate threat to children here is now simple, excruciating hunger.
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.