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'Africa's Afghanistan' - Islamist Sharia State Spreads In Mali, Civilians Abandoned

In the West African nation of Mali, the situation is rapidly disintegrating for large swaths of population as Islamist radicals intent on imposing religious law are spreading their power. On the ground in a nation in peril.

Food aid arriving in northern Mali (EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection)
Food aid arriving in northern Mali (EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection)
Gunnar Rechenburg

MOPTI - In the next few days, Hammadoun Boureima Dicko is going to call a general assembly. The topic for those present will be simple: when will they take down the tents, pack up the cooking equipment, and herd the livestock together. Boureima is the chief of Nelbel, a nomad village -- and it's time to move.

For hundreds of years, some 100 residents of Nelbel and their cattle have packed up and moved twice a year. But this year the routine is fraught with uncertainty. In January, as usual, they went 120 kilometers (74.5 miles) to the southwest, near the city of Mopti, where the best grazing land is. Now they have to go back to Douantza in northeastern Mali.

But now there is a problem: since April, a border has formed right through the area the nomads traditionally cross. And Douantza is on the other side, in the part that al-Qaeda has declared is now a religious state. This is an area where soldiers, government officials and non-believers are hunted down, where for the past couple of weeks those who have violated Sharia law are being flogged, where girls and boys have been separated in schools, and where pubs, smoking, sports and music have been strictly outlawed.

This is where "Africa's Afghanistan" begins. Boureima knows all this, but he still intends to call the assembly and pack up and leave.

Mahmadou Traoré would also like to go to Douantza, to get some kind of picture of the situation there. But he knows that he wouldn't survive very long: for government officials, the north has become a death zone. Traoré is Vice-Governor of Mopti, the region bordering the religious state to the south. Files are piled high on Traoré‘s desk, his three phones are constantly ringing, and people keep coming in seeking a signature, information, a decision.

Traoré looks tired. "Our country has never experienced anything like this," he says. Tuareg uprisings? There have been a lot of those. Coups d"état? Three. Shortage of food, famine? On a regular basis. But Islamists occupying around 70% of the country and declaring a religious state with Sharia instead of Malian law? Never. "And now we've got them all at once!" And all concentrated in his region.

Taking a file from one of the piles and leafing through it he says: "Right now, we have 25,754 refugees here." The number is surprising by its precision. However, there are probably a great many more refugees than that – it's just that most of them live with relatives, and so are not registered.

"We've developed an aid program for the coming months and are prepared for 50,000 refugees." The provincial government, working with local and international and organizations, wants to put a roof over their heads, provide food, health care, and education for the children. But Traoré says he's not expecting much help from Bamako, Mali's capital.

Where it began

Bamako is where the whole miserable situation started, years ago, when Tuareg rebels weren't dealt with was rigorously enough – in fact, some of the rebels were even made commanders of the Malian armed forces up north. After Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was killed in late 2011, the country was suddenly flooded with fighters and weapons: the Tuareg had supported Gaddafi in Libya for years, and were now back home and jobless.

Countries like Mauritania, Niger and Algeria immediately confiscated the weapons of such fighters – but Mali did not. It only took the Tuareg two months to regroup. Then the leadership of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) issued orders from its exile in Paris. In January, the Tuareg uprising began in the north. And the government in Bamako didn't do much more than stand and watch.

That was too little for some officers in the Malian armed forces, and on March 22 they staged a coup d"état that saw the president chased out of office – a result many Malians, tired of the prevailing cronyism, were delighted with.

Most of those who have fled the north for the south consider the armed forces to be the only hope: the army should march in and take back what the rebels have claimed, they say. But the question is whether the Malian army is up to that. In Bamako, many are asking the question, including international security forces that work for private military providers and advise embassies, the foreign office and aid organizations.

"Of course the Blackwaters of this world are here," says a Belgian consultant, who asked to remain anonymous. The controversial American security company now operates under another name, but "Blackwater" has since the Iraq war become a synonym for the less savory sides of the security industry.

The Belgian is sitting in a bar, invites me to a beer, and speaks openly about the Malian army. "Without foreign help it's not going to work. And until such help is offered there's nothing to be done in the north," he says. He has an international perspective. "If the army fails, then the world may have another Afghanistan on its hands."

What that means is something that Issa Niafo and his family from Gao have already seen with their own eyes. It took a day and a night for the Tuareg and the radical Islamists to take control of the city of 87,000 inhabitants, they say. There was virtually no resistance. As they marched in, the occupying forces destroyed banks, shops, offices, mobile phone infrastructure, even electricity and water lines.

"Life in the city got progressively more difficult," Niafo recalls. His family held out for two months, but when they couldn't get hold of food any longer, he decided it was time to flee. "We didn't have any money left, because everything valuable was taken away from us during house searches."

It took Niafo three days to borrow enough money for bus tickets for his sister, wife, son and himself. From a security standpoint, the situation was particularly dangerous since the occupying forces were also fighting amongst themselves.

The Tuareg plan to join forces with the Islamists failed, and the desert fighters were chased out of Gao. There and in the other two large cities, Timbuktu and Kidal, another group has the upper hand: an Islamist alliance called Ansar Dine ("Defenders of the Faith").

Foreign fighters

According to refugees, most Ansar Dine members are from Algeria, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Saudi Arabia. Summed up, the situation in Africa reads like a "who's who" of Islamic terrorists: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, al-Shabaab. According to eye witnesses, the fighters calling themselves "holy warriors' are armed with modern weapons – and know how to use them.

So those who can have fled northern Mali. Ansar Dine let them go, but not before robbing them. Issa Niafo and his family got out of Gao in the north-eastern part of Mali in May. Their first stop was Douantza – controls, long waits – and then on to Mopti where they spent a day before proceeding to Bamako and on to Diema, in western Mali, where they have relatives. Thanks to good roads, this took four days.

Heading out that way, it gets drier with every passing kilometer. In Gao, despite little rain and high temperatures, there was still some green, but Diema, not far from the border with Mauritania, is a city of dust and wind in the middle of nowhere.

For white people, the area is not particularly safe: visitors from the West are regularly kidnapped in this border region. Kidnapping for ransom is a way for radical Muslim groups to fill up their war coffers.

Niafo says: "I had the choice between a refugee camp in Mopti and my relatives in Diema." His brother is a teacher, and his life is not easy right now: the government does not pay its employees on a regular basis, and due to sparse rain these past few years the garden isn't providing the amount of food that it used to.

And so once again, the region is experiencing famine, which isn't unusual per se, but now there are suddenly 300,000 refugees from the north to be fed as well. The situation stirs further unrest and increases the pressure on the transitional government in Bamako.

"We are very proud people," says village chief Boureima. "We're proud of our cattle, of our independent way of life, and of the way we defend ourselves. And now we're even prouder that our children are learning things that their parents don't know."

But when Boureima calls the assembly and the tents come down, the school comes down too - and nobody knows if the boys and girls will be able to resume the classes they share once they're back in Douantza, or if Boureima himself will still be able to sit out in front of his dwelling and enjoy a smoke.

Read original article in German.

Photo - EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

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