New Internationalist

Are ordinary Tuaregs becoming Mali conflict scapegoats?

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Trained and well-armed Tuareg rebels returning from Libya have been widely blamed for Mali’s recent upsurge in violence. But what’s happening to indigenous Tuareg people themselves? Nick Harvey and Julien Tremblin look at their plight in and around Mali and find it’s women and children who are suffering most.

Photo by Ferdi Adorno under a CC Licence.
Photo by Ferdi Adorno under a CC Licence.

Chadal Walet Albakaye was left half-naked and semi-conscious on the floor with her foot badly broken. The situation in Mali’s capital, Bamako, had become increasingly untenable for Tuaregs like her who became victims of violent reprisals as social tensions mounted after conflict flared up in January. But it was not members of the army or a militia who did this, but the wives and sisters of soldiers, frustrated and intent on revenge after attacks on the Malian military by Tuareg rebels.

‘These were my neighbours but their rage was simply tremendous,’ she says. ‘They left me with two broken toes, one cracked tooth and many bruises. But I’m the lucky one. I’m safe now while so many are dead, wounded, or just lost on a piece of the desert dying of hunger and thirst.’

Chadal was able to escape from Mali and find refuge in Europe. She is just one of the estimated 160,000 Malians – mostly women and children, from both sides of the conflict – who have either been internally displaced or forced to leave their country this year. Many have fled to neighbouring Burkina Faso, Algeria, Mauritania and Niger. With much of the region facing severe food shortages and drought, the situation for these refugees is dire.

‘It’s quite desperate,’ says Mark, an aid worker in Bamako. ‘Before this crisis blew up there were already around 10 million people in need of assistance across the Sahel [the semi-arid belt that stretches across North Africa from Senegal to Sudan]. Now it’s close to disaster-point.’

Those in the camps close to the borders are facing a daily scramble to stay alive.

‘We have no running water or medicines but the real need is food,’ says Moussa Ag Elmoctar from a refugee camp in a stadium in Burkina Faso. ‘People are selling off what little they own to be able to survive a little longer.’

Photo by Assan Midal.
Thousands of families are being forced to live away from their homes, under the trees, with next to nothing. Photo by Assan Midal.

An estimated three million Tuaregs are spread across vast swathes of the Sahara and the Sahel, from Libya to southern Algeria, northern Mali and Niger through to Burkina Faso, with around one million based in Mali. Armed Tuareg insurrections are nothing new. There have been regular eruptions over the years due to what Tuaregs see as unequal treatment within Malian society and the underdevelopment of their desert homelands.

‘The rebels are calling for more development, more schools, better access to water and medicine,’ says Moussa. ‘We are nomads, but if we get sick in the desert we may have to go by donkey or camel for 200 kilometres before we can get medicines.’

Many intricate details get lost in broad-brushed international coverage that conflates Tuareg MNLA rebels with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb

These tensions were brought sharply into focus when well-trained and heavily-armed fighters, many of whom were Tuareg, returned from Libya after fighting for Muammar Gaddaffi. The rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) was formed, comprising Tuareg and other minorities, and swiftly began attacks on Malian army garrisons in the north of the country.

In turn the Malian army attacked Tuareg settlements, with reports of bombing raids in some areas. This violence, and the resulting social tensions between Tuareg and other Malians, has caused tens of thousand from both sides to leave the country, with some towns and villages in the north being completely emptied.

Desires for independence

But while previous conflicts were more focused on the rights of the Tuareg people, many feel this conflict is different; this time independence from Mali is firmly on the agenda.

‘This rebellion is the first time they are really pushing for the independence that was promised to us in 1960 [when the French colonizers pulled out of the country],’ says Chadal. ‘We want our own territory.’

‘I have two brothers who are policemen but they have been detained because they refuse to fire on their own people’

And it seems they are getting closer to this goal by the day. With the major towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu having fallen, the rebel MNLA now control the whole of the region in the north they call Azawad, which they would like to be the territory of their independent state.

The Tuaregs’ desire for self-rule is just another layer in the complex nature of this conflict. Many of its intricate details get lost in broad-brushed international coverage that conflates Tuareg MNLA rebels with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb.

‘Even though Al Qaeda may operate in the region, it is completely separate from the MNLA,’ says child support worker Assan Midal. ‘It is a regular trick that the Malian government uses to discredit the Tuareg to create bad feeling towards them both internally and internationally.’

And while Tuaregs may be the majority players in the rebellion, there are several other ethnic groups involved, with similar grievances.

Chadal Walet Albakaye

‘Many groups in the North are also fighting, including Sonraïs, Peuls, Bambaras and Maures,’ says Chadal. ‘Yet it’s not an ethnic war but a revolution of the poor desert people in the North against the government in the South although it is Tuaregs who are made the scapegoats.’

The mix in the region becomes even more complicated when you consider that many ethnic groups, including Tuaregs, are part of the Malian security forces.

‘I have two brothers who are policemen but since 17 January they have been detained because they refuse to fire on their own people,’ says Chadal. ‘They were integrated into the police force after a rebellion in 2002 as a way to create solidarity and give people jobs.’

Mali’s troubled head of state, Amadou Toumani Toure (known as ‘ATT’), is currently in hiding after being ousted by disaffected Malian military who not only feel he has been ‘too soft’ on the Tuareg but that he sent them to fight the well-equipped rebel MNLA without sufficient supplies, weapons or preparation.

Rebels win, refugees lose

With both the government and the military embroiled in this internal fighting, many Tuaregs believe this can only strengthen their own push for an independent Tuareg state.

‘The coup is a big win for the Tuaregs,’ says Chadal. ‘While all the military are caught up in Bamako trying to prevent ATT from coming back, the Tuaregs can gain more territory and increase the likelihood of gaining independence or at least some sort of special status.’

‘A people that everyone used to love is now living in complete misery everywhere in the world and no one talks about it, no one cares. Who are we now? What will we become?’

But while events may have turned in the favour the Tuareg rebels, conditions for the refugees continue to worsen. Immediately after the coup the military rebels announced the closing of all Mali’s borders which further hindered the work of aid agencies already struggling to operate in a hostile environment.

‘The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) is trying to carry out a vaccination programme and that has already been affected,’ says Mark. ‘But it will also cause economic problems for the whole of Mali and the surrounding countries and no one in this region needs it.’

Despite the complexity, one thing is certain: the current conflict is having a devastating impact on not only Tuaregs but the whole of Mali.

Fadimata, a musician for the Tuareg group Tartit was in Bamako when Tuareg houses were being randomly attacked by locals and she fled. She has no idea where her fellow band members are and she is beginning to even doubt her own identity.

‘We don’t know where we are anymore, we don’t know what to do, we don’t know what our future will be, or even if we have one,’ she said from a refugee camp in Burkina Faso. ‘A people that everyone used to love is now living in complete misery everywhere in the world and no one talks about it, no one cares. Who are we now? What will we become?’

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