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Mali: Tuareg Refugees View the Future With Alarm

A report by our special correspondent in Mentao

Translated Wednesday 24 April 2013, by Isabelle Métral

Afraid of the Malian army’s demands, a great many Northern Mali Tuareg fled their villages. They have been wandering ever since in the desert or have found shelter in camps in neighboring countries like Burkina-Faso.

From our special correspondent in Mentao.
Issa Ag Mohammed, wearing a fez that partly hides his wizened face, comes out of his tent with a dignified air. And yet his tent is far from being luxurious, made up of hessian sacks, mats and white heavy canvas handed out by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR). He built it in the middle of hundreds of others over a 4,5sq. km camp in one of the poorest zones in Burkina-Faso, near Djibo, on the border of the Sahel.

One month ago Issa Ag Mohammed set off from Douentza, a town near the Northern Mali border. The situation for the Tuareg had become unbearable. Leaving Mali entailed losing his herd, his most precious possession. Those who were able to keep theirs left them on the border. “With friends,” they say, in fact often Black Bellas - descendants of slaves who worked for the Tuareg - who are looking after them.

He and his wives and children fled the return of the Malian army. In Timbuktou and Gao, the Tuareg and the Arab inhabitants also ran off. Not along the roads though, for the roads were controlled by the army, but across the desert where those that did not make it to the neighboring countries are still hiding. “As the French army pushed back the Islamists, it left its positions to the Malians, who have since been free to commit atrocities, kill, loot our houses and steal our cattle,” he complains.

He is not the only one to confirm what the United Nations have just brought to light: soldiers of the Malian army commit crimes against the Tuareg, the Fula, and Arab ethnic groups. The members of the committee that manages the refugee camp in North Mentao declare that two Tuareg police officers were murdered in Sévaré, in Mali, by Malian soldiers. And indeed one Sévaré inhabitant confirms the fact; he is a Bambara and cannot be suspected of having any sympathy for the Tuareg: “Besides,” he says, “refugees in the Mentao camp make no mystery of their opinion.” In Mentao’s school where he is now back and teaching, Mohammed Ag Mohammed Ousmea, called Wagui for short, relates how his uncle was killed the week when the French army entered Timbuktoo. “He was coming back from market,” he explains. "He was the only Tuareg in the bus. When the soldiers saw that his documents showed him to be a marabout, they took him to their base. Once there, a soldier lied: he said before witnesses that he knew my uncle and that it was not him. A week later, my uncle’s body was found near another one behind a dune.” Wagui is now wearing a shirt and jeans instead of his K’sa (the traditional Tuareg bubu).

The Malian government and the Tuareg have been in conflict many a time before. Although clearly a minority in the country, many of them want Northern Mali, which they call Azawad, to become independent. Yet the tension had relaxed, for in the 1990s former Tuareg rebels joined Gaddafi’s Malian army. But when he was toppled in 2011, they came back heavily armed to Northern Mali. The MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) was then capable of fighting an incompetent Malian army in which a colonel’s office can be bought for 500,000 CFA. In January 2012 the MNLA launched an offensive. Within four months they reached Douentza and proclaimed Azawad’s independence. But during the re-conquest, alliances were formed with armed Jihadist groups, until the Jihadists took over from the MNLA. In Mentao, Habib Ag Mohamed is angry: “they have screwed up our revolution,” he said angrily.

France says “it is attentive and “concerned” but seems rather discreet concerning the crimes committed by the Malian forces, an army that considers the civilian Tuareg populations as supporters of the MNLA. Besides, refugees in the Mentao camp make no mystery of their opinion: when an eighty-year-old Tuareg with his arms up shouts: “We need our territory, Azawad, Azawad,” he is echoed enthusiastically by the fifty people present. Habib Ag-Mohammed and his friends do not shift all the blame on France: “It drove the Islamists away. That’s a good thing. We are against the Jihadist ideology. And the Aqim [1] and Mujwa [2] are more difficult to fight against than the Malian army because they can turn up anywhere anytime.” Paradoxically, the one issue on which black Malians and Tuareg are agreed is the behavior of the French army. It is respected on both sides. Black Malians are aware that without the French army their own army would collapse. Whereas in the Tuareg’s eyes, France, as the former colonial power, has some responsibility. For France drew the present borders, and since it has stepped in, it belongs to it to control the Malian army with UN blue helmets from Niger, Mauritania, Burkina-Faso and Algeria. “The armies of those countries know us. We want no soldiers from the Ivory Coast or Cameroon. They mistake us for Islamists,” a young Tuareg from the Mentao camp explains. Only foreign forces can make it possible for the 180,000 or so refugees (90% of them Tuareg or Arab) to return from the camps managed by the HCR in Burkina-Faso, Mauritania, and Niger. Then it will be necessary to talk. But for the time being, between the Tuareg on the one hand, who demand independence for Northern Mali and consider Blacks as inferior, and, on the other hand, a government and Malan troops that seek revenge , all dialogue seems impossible.

[1Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

[2Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa

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