Mali - The truth behind the ethnic cleansing (The New Times, 11th of March 2013)
Masgrave, near Timbuktu - photo © Pierre Piccinin da Prata (Mali - February 2013)
by Pierre Piccinin da
Prata (Timbuktu, February 2013)
Despite the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ best efforts to smother it with a deluge of positive official communiqués, the news is spreading like wildfire across northern Mali.
At first it was kept away from the limelight by the French high command and the Elysée’s constant stream of successful reports portraying Operation Serval as a swift victory (when in reality, entire regions of this predominantly rural country remain in the hands of the Islamists, the latter having only abandoned the cities)… However, we have reached the point where the atrocities committed against the Arab and Touareg population can no longer be brushed under the carpet. Rumours abound and international observers on the ground are slowly refusing to pass a blind eye over what are no longer simple ‘acts of violence’.
Yet nothing could have prepared me for what I was to discover upon my arrival in Timbuktu.
I had of course heard of the humiliation that the ‘fair-skinned’ were subjected to - Arabs and Touaregs were both being quickly associated with the Islamist rebels. These communities, who are loathed by the majority of sub-Saharan Malians, the Bambara, are therefore constantly subjected to popular vilification, the latter being encouraged by the silence of the Malian army.
A few days prior to my arrival in Timbuktu, I had heard of the assassination of three Arabs, all summarily executed by the army by a simple bullet in the head.
Moreover, thanks to my Touareg and Arab contacts in Bamako, I had been able to make contact with a Bambara family in Timbuktu, who were very concerned about the plight of their ‘fair-skinned’ former neighbours. They provided me with the necessary information to uncover the sordid truth behind the mysterious Touareg and Arab disappearances in this northern city…
I left Bamako to return to Timbuktu by following the roads to Djibali and Léré, both of which are regularly used by Islamic rebels’ pick-up trucks, which have plunged the region into chaos. It was my only option if I wanted to reach the north of the country because the only other route available, which passes through Mopti and Douentza, is completely under the Malian army’s control and they have peppered it with checkpoints. It is therefore impossible for a ‘toubab’, a ‘white person’, to gain access to the north of the country, even with the authorization of a specific Ministry.
The French army offered me a place on a cargo-plane which flew numerous times from Bamako to Timbuktu. However, after three days spent waiting in the capital, an army officer informed me that the deal was off. Considering the attacks which had meanwhile erupted in Gao, I cannot say I was very surprised.
These Franco-Malian control procedures are highly effective as they force any ‘curious’ journalist to resort to the riskier alternative of circumnavigating check points via mud tracks containing anti-personnel mines and worse still, venturing into rebel-held territory.
Yet this was nothing: I had only just entered the walls of Timbuktu when the gruesome reality of the situation hit me.
The corpses of the three executed Arabs lay rotting a hundred meters away from Timbuktu’s northern gate. They were hardly even covered by the desert sands (an old lady shouted at me “Nobody here cares about the bodies of these Arabs”). Their faces were still visible through the dust and dirt caught in their beards, as the Harmattan whistled in the night air.
Two of them were merchants, who had risked entering the city. The third was the head of the ‘madrassa’, a Koranic school. His name was Mohamed Lamine ould-Mohamed Mahmoud. He had been arrested by soldiers in front of his wife. A little later, his corpse was discovered beside the bodies of the other two men.
I ran into a Malian cameraman, who happened to be the first to film the two corpses on the day of their discovery. Since the widespread diffusion of these images on European television, Mustafa has been on the ‘wanted list’ of the Malian army and had therefore gone into hiding. As I was covered by the immunity of the Malian Ministry of Defense, I offered him a lift in my car, enabling him to escape from Timbuktu.
Thanks to the reliable contacts in the sub-Saharan population I had been put in touch with, I was able to enter into the households of the local population, far away from the ‘fixers’, who make a living from selling the ‘good word’ of the French army to any journalist that happens to cross their path. It was in the intimacy of these families, at night, around the flickering light of a petroleum lamp, in a city deprived of water and electricity, that I listened to and gathered the chilling accounts of these people. They were terrified by what the Malian army, coming from the south, had done to their neighbors.
“They were fortunate”, Aguissa my host, explained to me, on the subject of these three Arabs. “Normally they have their throats cut. For all Arabs and Touaregs who are captured by the army, the soldiers do not shoot them. They slit their throats!”
From here on, each of them poured forth their own macabre experiences…
- Three days ago, an Arab family, with their eighteen year old son, was arrested. Their son had been working in the Ivory Coast. He had recently come back to help his parents. We do not know what happened to them. Yet everyone has heard the rumours… For the Malian army, all ‘fair-skinned’ people are the same. Arabs, Touaregs, Bellas… The military believe that they are at the heart of the uprising and therefore the problem. They want to get rid of them once and for all. The colonel told me: “If we exterminate them, there will no longer be any more rebellions.”
- Yesterday, Idda, a peddler who had a stall at the market – we knew him well – was arrested. He too, had disappeared.
- When the French army attacked, many Arabs and Touaregs fled. Yet they were not able to go very far. They were rounded up by the Malian army, who massacred them and then stole their belongings. It was the army that did that, not the police, nor the French.
- Even in the ranks of the military, the ‘fair-skinned’ are disappearing. They are regularly sent on patrol, two or three of them with the others. Yet they do not return. We never see them again. Rumours are spreading, so now desertionsare becoming more and more common…
Yet all these accounts could not have prepared me for what lay on the outskirts of the city.
A few hours before dawn, Aguissa led me beyond the city limits into the desert, in the direction of Kabara.
In the darkness, with nothing but a crescent moon for light, we slowly made our way over the sand dunes. Aguissa wanted to show me something. “Do not lose sight of me, my friend”, he insisted. “In the desert, if you don’t know the way…”
After about three quarters of an hour, we approached a large dune, my temporary guide signaled that we were not to talk nor make the slightest noise beyond this point. I lay down next to him. A dozen yards away, we could see the silhouettes of Malian soldiers camped around a fire and make out their conversations.
Cautiously, we made our way around their position to climb up the next dune.
Behind this vast sand dune, lit only by the light of a crescent moon we saw the full horror of the atrocities… The corpses had been dumped there. They were partly covered, their limbs, inert, protruded from the desert sands revealing eyeless faces. A few straps of cloth flapped in the wind. Tufts of hair were ruffled by the night breeze. A woman’s teeth, revealed by chapped lips, glinted in the dark as the enamel caught the moonlight. There before me was the horrific scene of a massacre with the stench of carrion which hung heavy in the air… It felt like awakening to a nightmare. All in all, I counted 21 or 22 bodies in the dust. There may have been more. Among the dead, three bodies caught my attention. They were smaller and frailer than the others and were almost certainly children.
We only stayed there for a few minutes. My host made the point that this site is far from unique as the Malian army seek to dispose of the bodies of ‘fair-skinned’ throughout the desert.
The sheer scale and nature of these executions are such that they speak for themselves: it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye to the reality that ethnic cleansing is being carried out by the military authorities. Their aim is to terrorize the Arab and Touareg population, to force them into exile and to eliminate any potential opposition.
For instance in Timbuktu, every single shop owned by a ‘fair-skinned’ person has been either burned down or pillaged. There is therefore hardly any more commerce in the city and everyday life is becoming more and more costly. Their houses were stripped of their furniture, of the window frames; the walls were laid bare and in some cases even the electric cables have been ripped out.
The Arab and Touareg families, who had not fled to the refugee camps in Niger or Mauritania following the Islamist seizure of the city of Timbuktu, were summarily ordered to register themselves with the military authorities. All were quickly arrested a short while later and have all since disappeared.
The French army, which despite having the airport under its control rarely goes out on patrol, can no longer ignore the severity of the situation…
As for the French media, which exerts a quasi-monopoly over the news coverage in the Malian crisis, they appear to be in complete denial of reality and meekly report one or two counts of the Malian army’s retribution: “It would embarrass our readership”, explained to me the correspondent of a French national newspaper. “My editors sent me here to cover shiny magazine topics and to support our troops; there are plenty of items to cover: the replacement of the Airport’s fire department’s fire hydrants, the electricity circuit being fixed, the installation of running water facilities…”
In nearby villages pillaging has begun. Malian officers behave like gang leaders, enlarging their collection of motorbikes, rings, watches and other loot. In the evening, they smoke hashish and party drunkenly through the night. They are the ‘masters’!
In the short period of time I was there, I witnessed more than enough. On the morning of the 14th February, after having properly rested, I decided to leave Timbuktu with Mustafa without further delay.
It was by chance that a young man suggested that I meet the last Arab in the city. I duly accepted his proposal and set out to find the market stall, where an old man was selling soap and tinned food. He was dressed in traditional Touareg attire and was very welcoming, despite the atmosphere.
His name is Ali ould-Mohamed Kalbali. On his identity card, he showed me that he was born ‘around 1943’. He was a great caravan leader. In his youth, he led more than 150 camels through the Sahara, with only the stars to guide him.
He showed me his grandson, who lives with him and his wife. Then he asked me to take a photo of them together.
He explained to me that he was too old to go and live elsewhere. I asked him if he had experienced any problems with the Malian army, as was the case for the rest of his community. He refused to say and said he knew nothing of the Arabs who had gone missing and added that he had never been worried. However, fear was written all over his face…
The interview over, I did not linger in the area. My young guide revealed to me that the soldiers had attempted to arrest Ali, however the local residents had intervened to protect him…
It was not two hours after I had left Timbuktu, we were crossing the river Niger on the last ferry in service, when I received a phone call from my guide: “They have arrested Ali!”
It was impossible to return the way we had come as the Malian army’s numerous checkpoints only enable ‘toubabs’ to leave Timbuktu and make their way to Bamako, not vice versa. The routes leading north are closed.
I immediately called some journalists, who I had met the day before and who were therefore still in Timbuktu.
Only the AP correspondent published the information: Rukmini Callimachi was on site immediately. She interviewed Ali’s neighbours: the soldiers bound his hands. The old man was trembling so much he could hardly walk. They pushed him into the back of a pick-up truck and nobody has laid eyes on him since. Yet the French media have reported nothing…
To this day, I have no news concerning Ali. I have tried calling my contacts in Timbuktu up to a dozen times a day: nobody has seen him.
“Don’t you worry about that Arab”, remarked my Bambara guide. “They were all too rich these Arabs. Now they are finished.”
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