Ripped apart by war

The rift between Mali’s north and south looks likely to deepen

refugee family 521 (photo credit: VICTORIA ADAL)
refugee family 521
(photo credit: VICTORIA ADAL)
The rebels who took over Mali’s north last year had various philosophies – some Islamist, such as those from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), supported by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and some primarily just separatist, such as the those from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA; Azawad is a term for Mali’s north).
But they were all Tuaregs and Arabs.
As elsewhere in the Sahel – the ecological transition zone across Africa, between the subtropical region in the south and the Sahara Desert to the north – ethnic tensions between northern Tuaregs and Arabs and southern black African ethnic groups have a long history. The fairly arbitrary national boundaries, a product of the late 19th century “Scramble for Africa,” were drawn up to demarcate French Sudan, the colony that included Mali.
The Malian Government is centered in Bamako to the south, vexing Tuaregs, who seek more infrastructure, representation in government, and integration in society in general. When Tuaregs and Arabs were bolstered by Malians who returned from Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011, with the weapons they brought with them from Qaddafi’s stockpiles, they were suddenly able to actualize their desires. The rebellion, which lasted 10 months, ruptured the tenuous relations and mutual dependencies between north and south.
Now that the French forces have arrived to reclaim large northern areas from the rebels, the ethnic tensions have come even more to the fore, as the Malian army takes deadly retaliatory action against Arabs and Tuaregs, holding them collectively responsible for defeating them. Black Malian civilians are no less vengeful and suspicious, having suffered months of harsh Islamic rule, or having been driven from their homes into refugee camps months ago. New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch has repeatedly warned the Malian army to take responsibility and curb these acts.
It is now the Arabs’ and Tuaregs’ turn to flee their homes to refugee camps in neighboring countries, or simply into the desert, because they fear violence, hatred and reprisal actions.
The different ecological zones in the country normally guarantee mutually beneficial market exchanges. The city of Mopti (“meeting place” in Flani language, one of Mali’s many ethnic groups) holds a sprawling market midweek on the banks of the Bani River. Dressed in traditional brightly colored dresses made of polished cotton, women weave among the crowds, sometimes balancing three baskets on top of their heads. Motorcycles and trucks raise clouds of sand as they deliver wares back and forth.
Mopti lies at the confluence of Mali’s two major international rivers, the Bani and the Niger, and also serves as a rendezvous point between north and south. There, people from the northern desert regions can buy vegetables from the fertile south, and people from the south can buy salt, the major economic product from the north. Mined in the deserts some 800 kilometers north of Timbuktu, salt arrives by boat and truck in massive grayish slabs strung together with camel hide.
But the crisis of the last 10 months has frayed this relationship. Natu Togo, a widow and mother of five, sat mid-February at the market behind neatly stacked piles of vegetables, swarmed by flies, and told of the hard times brought by the war. “Before, I would sell everything in two days,” she said, smoothing her purple robes. “Now, these are sitting here for more than 10 days.”
Togo related that people used to come from Timbuktu, Niafunké and Gao, but now they cannot. “I don’t know how I will make any money this season,” she said.
At another stall, two young mothers lay in the shade behind basket after basket of medicinal herbs, remedies for stomach problems, malaria and headaches. “Market? Now we have no market,” said Fatimata Nienta. “People from the north are afraid to take the road down here. They’re afraid people here don’t like them. And there are many Jihadi checkpoints where they take money to allow people to pass.”
In a shantytown outside the city of Mopti, one of the handful of Tuareg families who did not flee the region now remains at home because the family has encountered so much hostility on the streets since the rebels took the north. “I grew up in Mopti,” said 62-yearold Mohammed Kunka Ajabierkwai, whose family roots go back to Gao, one of the first areas to fall to the rebels last year. But since the problems started last year, he continued, “people come to make trouble with me all the time. They ask me what the Tuaregs want, but I don’t know – I’ve been here a long time and I know nothing about these things.” Though he has not encountered any physical violence, Ajabierkwai had to close his shop in town because he feared reprisals by locals, and his sons remain at home as well.
The Sahel region – the southern band of the vast and lawless Sahara Desert – spans a number of West African countries and is ideal for smuggling. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, the area nurtures a thriving drugs trade that originates in coastal Guinea-Bissau. South America’s drug lords, seeking a new market, have sunk so much money into this small and astonishingly corrupt country that it has been called Africa’s first narco-state.
With their profound knowledge of desert smuggling routes, Tuaregs and their “black slaves” are thought to be deeply involved in this trade. Islamists play a role in the smuggling too. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, allegedly trained by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and held responsible for the January hostage crisis at an oil plant in In Amenas, Algeria, became known as the “Marlboro man,” such was his involvement in the trans-Sahara smuggling trade.
This confluence of activities has led southern black Malians to collapse the categories of Islamist, rebel, smuggler, drugs purveyor under a heading that could be summed up as “narcojihadi,” and paints all Tuaregs and Arabs with the same brush.
“The West calls them Islamists – they are not Islamists, they’re just criminals,” said Al-Hadji Yattara. Despite his family’s pleas to flee with them to Bamako, Mali’s capital in the south, when the rebels arrived, Yattara remained in Niafunké and continued running his hotel. Because he sells alcohol in his hotel, he eventually received 40 lashes mandated by shari’a law the rebels enforced. “But they smoke hashish in the desert sun all day. They are not Islamists,” Yattara insisted. “They are just Tuaregs who grew beards and cut their pants short, and they wanted to make the people afraid.”
He estimates that out of the 3,000 or so who used to live here, 80 percent have fled to the south. When the French army retook this town at the end of January, the rebels disappeared, along with other Tuaregs who had lived there before.
Yattara’s sentiment finds echoes among a volunteer militia calling itself FLN, “National Liberation Front.” This 867-strong group was formed in April of last year, and includes men and women from all of Mali’s ethnic groups, but “no Tuaregs.” They now live in a training camp in Sévaré, near the French military base in the south, where they practice formations and learn to use weapons while awaiting authorization from the Malian army. For now, their job is to investigate – they use information networks to identify the rebels who, they say, have concealed themselves among the civilian population.
Ibrahima Wattara, leader of the militia, voiced a common sentiment among southern Malians. “They came to make trouble so that they could profit from the drug trade,” he said. “They don’t do it for religion. They cut people’s hands off to make them afraid. They destroyed the banks, the police stations, everything. They didn’t come to make a government. When terrorists do things like this, it’s for their own profit.”
Wattara conceded that some of the rebels fought sincerely for independence in the north, but scoffed at the idea that the government in Bamako did not address their needs. “There are many Tuaregs in the government; the government does everything for them. They want money, food, water, they get it. They want a high government position, they get it. It’s like when you do everything for your kids, they still want more.”
Accusations also flow about the methods rebels use to recruit child soldiers. “They inject the kids with drugs to make them follow their orders,” said Moussa Sidibe, a captain in the FLN. Sidibe said that one of the other men in the militia went to visit his mother in Konna, a town to the north taken by the rebels last month, which prompted the French intervention. There, he saw rebels giving injections to children, and he also reported seeing many syringes on the ground. “Most children have now run away from the Jihadists, but the ones who follow them for money have stayed,” said Sidibe.
“The problem began with Qaddafi,” said Wattara. When the Libyan leader lost control of the country last fall, the Malians whom he had recruited into the Libyan army escaped with many weapons, he continued, and Amadou Toumani Touré, Mali’s president at the time (overthrown in a March coup) allowed them to return because they were Malians.
Perhaps the most divisive of the many racial distinctions here is the enduring practice of hereditary slavery. Though outlawed in 1960, slavery persists, especially in the north where the slaveowning pattern is that Tuaregs and Arabs own black slaves.
“It’s no way to live, without your freedom.
You need to make a living for your wife and your children,” explained Mohammed Yattara, a former slave who ran away from his one-time Tuareg masters some 20 years ago. He lives with his wife, Fatimata (herself a freeborn descendant of former slaves), and their four children in the village of Toya, which lies on the Niger River at Timbuktu’s outskirts. Like many other residents of the village, Yattara works as a farmer in the rice and hay fields that thrive in the river’s surrounding wetlands.
Each of Mali’s dozens of ethnic groups has a traditional occupation, and Yattara is one of the Bella (“slave” in the Tuareg language), the black Africans who have inherited their slave status generation after generation.
Mali is one of a handful of countries in the world where the practice of servitude still flourishes, with as many as 200,000 Bella living a life of hereditary enslavement. Not all Tuaregs own slaves, and not all slave owners are Tuaregs – there are also black Malian ethnic groups who own Bella slaves.
But in the Timbuktu region, only Tuaregs own slaves. Not only the Tuareg support for the Islamist rebels’ harsh rule over the last 10 months, but also their slave-owning ways have fanned the flames of racial animosity in the contested northern region.
“In my life I will never forget what it feels like to be a slave,” said Yattara. “Whenever I see Tuaregs, I will be angry.”
Sitting with the village chief among a group of men and women, some of whom were also descendants of slaves or former slaves, he spoke of his earlier life in bondage.
“You depend on them for everything. If they tell you to do something, you have to do it, or they will beat you. You can marry, but if the master wants to have sex with your wife, he will. Everything that’s yours is theirs.”
Like all other slave children, Yattara never went to school, and to this day he is unable to read and write. “But my son is in school now,” he said proudly. Yattara believes he is 41 or 42, but he cannot be sure because Tuareg masters do not file birth certificates.
Several Malian anti-slavery organizations, such as Temedt, work to eradicate slavery, but have had limited success so far. In the Timbuktu region, slaves work on farms near the river, as household servants and shepherds. Deeper in the vast deserts of the north, which are inhabited by Tuaregs and Arabs, they mine salt in back-breaking conditions under the blazing desert sun.
Salt is the north’s main economic product, and black slaves deliver it to the southern markets.
With the chances of dialogue slim, since the blacks and Tuaregs have now geographically split up, the assumptions that each group makes about the other are increasingly definitive. As violence in Gao escalates, the rift looks likely only to deepen.