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Postcard From Mali - Riverside Whispers From A Nation At War

The port of Mopti in troubled waters
The port of Mopti in troubled waters
Jean-Phillipe Rémy

MOPTI - Each dugout canoe that arrives on the banks of Mopti, unloads its passengers, cargo -- and the latest news. In this dry and cold season, it takes a few days to reach Gao and Timbuktu, which are further up the Niger River.

These two cities are now seeing a crucial phase of the military operation against Islamist rebels allied to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in the form of French-Malian airstrikes. The telephone lines and roads are cut off. There are no outside witnesses. (On Tuesday, French military forces confirmed that together with the Mali army, they had taken solid control of both cities.)

Back on the water, long motorized canoes carry gasoline, bags of rice, fuel and snippets of personal stories diluted in the conflict. A canoe captain from Gao is not sure about the intentions of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), who controls the village and is the object today of the French strikes, but knows exactly the price of the goods he will send the village by “pinasse” (motorized canoe) in a few days.

The three days by boat, upon reflection, offer an opportunity to mock the aberrations of the Islamic police, starting with the obligation to conceal their mystical protections, the amulets, including small leather bags tied under their clothing. “If they find an amulet, they will beat you, then they will attach it to a tree and shoot it. But if the amulet remains intact they will use it for protection,” the canoe chief chuckles…

Down below, the pointy bows of the boats are entangled on the shore, like the names of the cities where they stop along this busy river.

A man arrives from Konna, the first city taken over by Malian military a few days after the start of the French intervention on Jan. 11. He talks about the “smell of the corpses” of Islamic rebels who were killed by airstrikes, not far from the river. He talks about the unexploded shell that blew up the children who were playing with it. No independent journalist has been allowed onsite to verify these bits of information, relayed along the Niger River.

Also arriving by river are those who were displaced by the war, castaways if you will. Arriving a few days ago, penniless, Mohamed Toure, a hairdresser, has returned to Mopti after a year and a half of cutting hairin Timbuktu.

A “Satan cut”

Hairdressing has been dangerous in times of Islamist rigor. The first time he was arrested by Islamic militias in Tonka, south of Timbuktu, the only mistake Mohammed had committed was to perform a classic haircut on a client called the “plateau.” A style considered sacrilegious by the Islamic police militias. “I was about to finish when they arrived. They broke my mirror and my tools. They said I was doing the “Satan cut.” They locked me in a cell and then they whipped me, in front of everyone.”

In Tonka, a tiny town on the banks of the river, Mohammed has seen all kinds of Islamist leaders and watched them recruit local “children,” which have become the most virulent in tracking minor infractions to the moral code.

He was struck twice more. Once because he was caught with a cigarette in his mouth. A bit later, because he was suspected of listening to music. “I was sleeping and the children jumped the wall and woke me up by clubbing me.”

This he could stand, but in early January, tensions started rising in Tonka. “The Islamists began taking hostages, girls without headscarves, or boys caught smoking. Everyone began to fear the future.” It is then that the unemployed hairdresser – his tools had been destroyed – decided to leave his seven-months pregnant fiancée at his mothers house, whose out of wedlock pregnancy could cause them terrible problems, and jumping on to a pinasse where he enrolled as “apprentice” (paid little or nothing), in order to travel to Mopti.

Along the way, the boat passed through four checkpoints. At each checkpoint, the ship was forced to dock why local authorities conducted a search. At the first checkpoint, in Niafounke (the city of famed Malian singer Ali Fakra Touré), the Islamists that still held the city forced him to cut the bottom of his pants, following the precept that a man’s ankles cannot be covered.

In the second checkpoint, held by the Malian army, the soldiers mocked him and his pants cut at mid-calf. “Whoever cut the trousers, kept the fabric in his bag in order to avoid me from finding it and sowing it back on,” he laments. In the tiny hair salon near the great mosque of Mopti, where he tells his story, we laugh. These days, it’s not easy being a hairdresser in Mali.

In the north, the Islamist stronghold, you are whipped for a “plateau” haircut. In Mopti, on the contrary, everyone is quickly getting rid of their facial hair to avoid being taken for a “bearded person,” a potentially dangerous confusion in an area where the army ruthlessly attacks the “traitors.”

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