Meanwhile, a long way from Afghanistan, here is a piece I wrote in mid-2012 whilst in Mali. I wasn't able to get it published; so here it is, for what it's worth, on my all-but-defunct blog.
For 78 years Amita Maiga never left her desert hometown. She lived in a small mud house in a quiet neighbourhood on the fringes of Gao, the ancient capital of the Songhai Kingdom, in what is now northern Mali. Her son, an army officer stationed in the country’s capital Bamako, would send his salary to her each month, her sole support since her husband died fifteen years ago.
On March 31 her life was turned upside down. Turbaned rebels thundered into Gao in pick-up trucks, firing shots into the air. They looted the hospital, stealing medicine and equipment, pillaged government buildings and the offices of international organizations, such as the Red Cross, and plundered food stores and granaries.
Amita, a frail, watery-eyed woman, stopped sleeping at night when a neighbour told her they were slitting people’s throats. Though she never witnessed any such thing herself, she saw and heard the men driving around town firing their guns. It was enough to make her pack up her things and leave. She would have fled sooner but had to wait to collect enough for her bus-fare.
Today, after a 48-hour journey across the dry scrublands of the Sahel in temperatures pushing 110 F, Amita has arrived, as have hundreds of others, at one of Bamako’s dusty bus terminals. She sits on a step beside her life’s belongings packed up into a few bundles. Dazed, she watches other passengers bustle past, her mouth partly open, displaying rows of browning teeth. Her skin is wrinkled and paper-thin, drawn across high cheekbones. Exhausted and frightened, she waits for her son to arrive, nervously thumbing a string of prayer beads with long bony fingers.
Amita Maiga is the face of the tumult that is sweeping northern Mali, unleashing a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions and stoking fears that the remote, hardscrabble territory could become a new haven for terrorists and traffickers. The original authors of the rebellion, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by their French acronym, MNLA) are at loggerheads with the Islamic fundamentalists of Ansar Eddine, a smaller group that emerged from the MNLA’s slipstream and wants to impose an austere interpretation of Shar’ia, including corporal punishment, across the south Saharan lands they now control. Labor-rich but cash-poor, the MNLA is struggling to form a transitional government based in Gao. An agreement in principle to merge with Ansar Eddine is foundering on a seemingly intractable disagreement over the role of religion—the MNLA has visions of a secular state with freedom of religion and lifestyle that are diametrically opposed to the fundamentalists’ wishes.
As the two groups wrangle, the MNLA’s refusal to tackle Ansar Eddine militarily is playing into its rival’s hands. Hundreds of its fighters have reportedly defected to Ansar Eddine, whjch, unlike the impecunious MNLA, is flush with cash from its al-Qaeda bedfellows. The close links between the fundamentalists and the terror group’s regional franchise will have al-Qaeda watchers wandering whether a terrorist takeover of Azawad is on the cards, but even if it is, there is little that can be done to combat it. Bamako is in disarray after a coup in March, and promises from Mali’s transitional leaders to restore the country's “territorial integrity” ring hollow.
There are calls from the African Union and former colonial ruler France for a UN-mandated peacekeeping force to re-claim northern Mali from the rebels and prevent the region turning into a “West African Afghanistan.”
But UN resolutions do not tend to be quick in the making and even if one were established, could a foreign force realistically take on an extremely well-armed militia with financial backing from a global terrorist network in what is one of the world’s harshest landscapes?
In the meantime, life as Amita Maiga and the 300,000 plus other fugitives from northern Mali is seemingly over. For them, there is only a humanitarian crisis that Amnesty International has called the worst in the area for 20 years. Beside the displacement, witnesses, rights groups and the U.N. claim that some members of the armed groups occupying Mali’s desert hinterland have robbed, murdered and raped civilians, and enlisted young boys to their ranks.
“The rebels are raping all the women they see – they come into houses and sometimes take young girls into their cars”, Amita’s bird-like niece Hawa says. The bony shoulders of her small frame show through her hijab.
“Women are being raped – we think it’s the MNLA (the Tuareg-led Azawad National Liberation Movement) – they go into people’s houses and take minors, maybe 12 or 13 year-old girls,” says Aisha ag Maiga (no relation – Maiga is a common Songhai name), another fugitive from the north.
Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch’s Senior Researcher for West Africa told Foreign Policy that Malian civilians had endured tremendous suffering since rebels consolidated control over the north. The complex web of rebel groups has created anxiety, she added, and the comprehensive looting of hospitals, schools, and government services had forced thousands to flee their homes.
According to the latest UN estimates, more than 300,000 people have fled the region since January 2012 as a result of the armed conflict, crossing the sub-Saharan scrublands in overloaded buses to refugee camps in neighbouring countries, mainly Mauritania and Burkina Faso, where relief organizations are distributing basic food items, water and providing medical assistance. Others with relatives in the Malian capital have sought refuge there.
The magnitude of the disaster is highlighted by the fact that a worsening food crisis affecting large swathes of the population has barely received a mention in the media. What the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay described as an impending “devastating” emergency, has undoubtedly contributed to thousands of northern Malians deciding to abandon their homes.
“People’s main problem is hunger”, says Aisha ag Maiga, the young woman from Gao.
“There’s no food; they are destroying our food supplies and granaries. I pray that God will punish them”, says Maya Maiga.
The rebels say they’ve liberated the north for “the happiness of its people”.
The hundreds of people who arrive each day on dusty buses in Bamako tell different stories.
*a borrowed, revised title taken from a J.D.Salinger short story