Ride Along With Tuareg Rebels, As Al Qaeda Undermines West African 'Spring'
The nomadic Tuareg people had hoped for more freedom in what is now a disintegrating situation in the West African nation of Mali. Islamic radicals have taken advantage of a power vacuum to exert their authority. A look up close with Tuareg rebels.
MENAKA – I didn't notice when we crossed the border into what may be a new country. Somewhere, there was an invisible line, a wadi, and a bunch of hovels. That was the border, and the pickup travelling at full speed entered this would-be new country as if nothing happened.
I arrived in the newly declared West African nation of Azawad. It is a beautiful, and dark name which means "land of transhumance," in Tamasheq, the Tuareg language. The Mali army left Azawad three weeks ago. Now, there are only the Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who declared their independence from not only the Mali authorities, but also Salafists and al Qaeda. Here, no one is in charge.
Still, Ali, who was driving the pickup to the town of Menaka, had happy eyes. He was lost in memories of singers, warriors, big gazelles that are no longer around, because the Mali government allowed the rich Arabs to exterminate them, shooting from their air-conditioned SUVs.
"Too bad that there's a bit of a mess," said Ali, speaking about a situation that has begun to frighten the Western world too. "We can't go up to the ‘Crab Pincers." Too bad. It is a place full of magic, even danger. Many saw the devil there and went crazy."
In his pockets, Ali holds his gris-gris, vodoo amulets. One fends off the curse of women's disregard.
Here, many dreamed of a new Spring like the one that took place last year, further north. But instead, after the start of the rebellion, radicalism and al Qaeda established themselves in the region. This is just the latest invasion of this land; but this time, the local people will not fight against them. The West could help, but many see the rebels as terrorists and Salafists. What's for sure is that the Tuareg are alone, as they have always been.
Bajan ag Hamatou has been the sultan of Menaka and representative of the region for 30 years. "The declaration of independence of Azawad? It's an invention of some Tuaregs sitting in front of computers in Paris. With a click they invented Azawad! We'll vanish as the gazelles did. Everything was just a facade. The Mali state, the Tuareg state, everything was built on nothing, as it is in Africa. Everything must collapse. Then, maybe we'll be able to rebuild."
Hamatou recalls three years ago when the region was struck by drought, and images of Tuaregs dying of starvation and thirst prompted calls for the nomadic people to be given shelter. "I went to Paris looking for help. We were in fashion, then. They told me, ‘No, are you crazy? Homes for Tuaregs, fixing them to a place! But it is your culture!" Do you understand? They pretended to love Tuaregs more and better than I do! Now, Salafists told me, ‘Come to pray with us." I said "No. I'm 64. It's too late to change my way of praying.""
We crossed the large fields of dark rocks and sand. The pickup seemed always still on the same place.
Weapons, drugs and money
The so-called Air Cocaine, a Boeing 727 loaded with 10 tons of the drug, crashed not too far from here in 2009. Last March, Malian authorities arrested four people suspected of being part of a larger drug trafficking network. The aircraft had taken off in Colombia, where cocaine goes for 1,000 euros a kilogram. In Africa, where the plane arrives before the merchandise is directed to Europe, the price of cocaine is up to 12,000 euro.
Corrupt officials and Al Qaeda, which allows and protect the transit, pull in a dizzying amount of money. Thinking about it helps to understand this war. In just three days, the army in the southern part of Mali -- which includes generals specialized in smuggling and foot soldiers who don't get a cut -- disintegrates. The North became a new, troubled nation, and all bets were off.
Now military nihilism has turned into political nihilism, as it happened in Somalia, with its dangerous mix of warlords and Islamic radicals. Tuareg rebels who started the rebellion have now lost sway. When order vanished, radical Salafists of the group Ansar Dine and their allies of Al Qaeda rose to the fore. These emirs of the deserts have big beards and theological certainties. They are small and fierce Algerian Bin Ladens. They travel, pray, manage, make speeches, and rule over the main cities of Gao and Timbuktu.
Moulaye, an old Tuareg rebel, admits defeat. "We Tuareg people don't exist anymore. We, who were in Libya for years, are Arabs now. Only a few people still speak Tamasheq at home. If everything will work fine, maybe one day I'll buy two camels and a piece of land to spend the weekend as a Tuareg -- the way I saw rich Libyans do," he says.
Right now, at least, the local tribe is still in charge of the town of Menaka. But Islamic radicals might arrive any time. Women and children have largely fled, with the men staying on to take care of business. Maybe because Tuaregs are a nomadic people, their houses are cave-like dwellings.
The Salafists of Ansar Dine seem intent on victory, and are well-equipped with money and weapons. "We are simple people. Our only fear is to be dominated by others, and to have to obey," says Moulaye. "Even when we fight, we don't accept orders. We say things like: "you're not the owner of my soul." So, not even Al Qaeda will be able to command us. Today we debate with Salafists, but they will not impose the veil on our women."
The West and the Mali government must make some offers to this people to persuade them to fight Al Qaeda. Tuaregs know that being part of the desert means having to fight constantly against an enemy that cannot be defeated in this life. Hope is the only thing that remains.
Read the original article in Italian
Photo – Magharebia