Mali: TSF reconnected Timbuktu’s population with the rest of the world.

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Emergency aid usually seems focused on either food or medical help. France’s Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) chose to focus on the important issue of creating communications for both NGOs and the general population during emergencies. Balancing Act’s Sylvain Beletre spoke to TSF’s Clément Bruguera, responsible for emergencies at TSF on his return from his mission in Mali.

On April 2012 and just after Gao’s capture Timbuktu was taken over from the Malian military by the Tuareg rebels of the MNLA and Ansar Dine.
At the end of January 2013, Malian and French army troops began retaking Timbuktu from the Islamist rebels.

Three days after Timbuktu’s liberation, emergency telecoms charity Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) dispatched a team from its international headquarters to the ancient city. The telecom equipment provided by TSF to the NGOs in the city is essential for the communication of vital security, food and health data to serve the local population’s needs in the region.

Balancing Act’s Sylvain Beletre  interviewed Clément Bruguera, responsible for emergencies at TSF on his return from his trip.
Q: What was connectivity like in the affected towns before the war?

A: The city used to be equipped with a Wimax and a 3G network set up and operated by Orange. There is no fibre cable landing in Timbuktu as yet and Malitel had plans to deploy some telecoms networks.
Q: How badly affected was the telephone and data infrastructure in Northern Mali by the war?
A: Connectivity was greatly affected during the rebellion. Islamists who occupied the area sabotaged telecoms networks before leaving. When TSF arrived all communications were cut off but were partially restored to a basic minimum when we left. The GSM network only works partially.
The communication is still very much disturbed in northern Mali, impacting on  NGOs activities in this region, also challenged by the degradation in safety conditions.
Q: What did you install and how is it working?
A: Three TSF experts flew to the city, bringing with them all the satellite equipment necessary to establish a crisis centre for humanitarian workers and opened phone lines for the affected population. We recruited 4 local people.
TSF set up two networks; Since all lines were cut off, local population was completely cut off from the outside world. Besides, the army is not equipped to support local population with public telephone lines.

A network made of 14 mobile satellite lines using equipment necessary to create 4 emergency telecom centers was assembled for the local populations. This has enabled to make 550 connections for 4200 inhabitants. Each call made by the local population is free but limited to about 3 minutes per family.

People are mainly making international calls anywhere in the World (United States, Senegal, Ivory Coast, France, Liberia ; etc.) to tell their loved ones they are alive and to usually ask for news, support or money.
The second TSF network consists of an Internet satellite connection at the town hall for the benefit of NGOs, the crisis unit, the hospital staff and the local authorities.

This equipment reinforces the capacities of humanitarian workers in the region of Timbuktu enabling them to share vital information to manage and report on the critical humanitarian situation in this area. When we arrived two NGOs were already present: MSF (Medecin sans Frontière) and International Medical Corps. We left the equipment there.
Our network is also used by local authorities to solve resources issues and report on civil registries which were partly destroyed or stolen by rebels. The Islamic group also destroyed the town hall’s computer equipment.
Q: What were your key challenges ?

A: When we arrived limited access to electricity did not help set up the equipment. Right now, the city provides the population with 5 hours of electricity every 4 days for a set fee. We installed a power generator to ignite our systems.
The other issue was about security. The army was very much engaged all over the region and did not have the resources to protect us. We learnt that roads were threatened with potential hidden explosive devices which did not make our return easy.
Q: How did TSF start and what does it do?
A: The idea for Télécoms Sans Frontières was the result of a simple observation made after many years of experience with general humanitarian charities, based on listening to those in need. During missions responding to the crisis in the Balkans and in Kurdistan during the 1st Gulf War, TSF’s founders realised that, in addition to medical and food aid, there was a critical need for reliable emergency telecommunications services. Affected populations are often left with no communications infrastructure in place to find assistance and loved ones.
Telecoms sans Frontières uses mainly satellite communications equipment. This equipment is constantly upgraded: they are expanded and developed in response to the demands/needs that we encounter on the ground. The field of satellite telecommunications evolves very quickly; we are informed through our technical partners of all technological improvements and innovations, therefore we can take advantage of each improvement to become quicker to respond to emergencies, be more mobile and more efficient. TSF uses equipment with a worldwide coverage.
A key piece of technology used in Mali is the Inmarsat BGan. It allows 10 computers to be connected to Broadband Internet and also offers voice and fax services. Weighting less than 4 kg, the BGan is light, mobile, usable within minutes and does not require a large dish.
Q: How does TSF get financed ?

A: Inmarsat, Eutelsat Commuications, Vodafone Foundation, UN Foundation, Pau Porte des Pyrennées, Région Aquitaine, PCCW Global, Astrium, AT&T, the EU, CFE-CGC, IT Cup are our official partners.
We are always looking for new Financial donors to do more on the field.
Q: Which actions have you recently supported in Africa ?
A: Since April, TSF has been reinforcing the coordination among the humanitarian actors working with Malian refugees in Niger and Burkina Faso thanks to four satellite telecom centres in the biggest refugee camps on the Mali borders.
Of the estimated 430,000 people uprooted since the beginning of 2012 in Mali, available figures are that 260,665 are still displaced within the country. The refugee population is around 170,000, of whom more than 70,000 are in Mauritania, some 47,200 in Burkina Faso, 50,000 in Niger and about 1,500 in Algeria.

For the internally displaced and refugees alike the primary worry remains insecurity. "Continued fighting, suicide attacks, reprisal attacks against some communities, the presence of landmines and unexploded ordnance in the regions of Mopti, Gao and Timbuktu, are all cited as reasons to delay returning, said Adrian Edwards, a UNHCR spokesman on 1st March 2013. However, the absence of services in the north is also a factor. With few schools functioning there, and government authorities still absent in many towns and cities, many displaced families prefer to wait.
For those outside Mali an additional complication is ethnic make-up, as a majority of the refugees are Tuareg or Arab. Fear of reprisal attacks is widespread, as is fear of criminality or that jihadists might remain present in the community.
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