METERopti used to be a stopover for tourists heading to the legendary Timbuktu, or to see the Dogon houses carved out of the yellow cliffs of Bandiagara. The city of Mali, known for its great mosque and gem salt markets, is located where the Niger and Bani rivers meet. When the rivers overflow, the city turns into a series of islands.
But the visitors and their cameras disappeared, and the 4x4s that used to transport them were replaced by those bearing the logos of humanitarian organizations, as the Malian government struggles to eradicate a growing Islamist movement that has spread from the north of the country since 2015..
Khadija Hamadoun Diallo, a Fulani farmer, sits on a plastic mat, with a red and black veil loosely covering her hair, in the shade of a white tent on the outskirts of Mopti. She has been living with her children in the camp for displaced persons for about four months. Some have been there for several years. More come each week, she says, all praying for the return of peace and security.
“First, the soldiers came to search our houses and made some arrests in the town. Then they came back a month later. They appeared out of nowhere in pickup trucks. And they started shooting.
“With the help of Dozo, they burned our houses, “says Diallo. “Now we have nothing left there.”
The Dozo are traditional hunting fraternities that have formed self-defense militias that, according to the Fulani, are being armed by the Malian army and used to carry out attacks against them. During a raid in June 2018, Dozo men surrounded a village In the Mopti region, they separated those of the Fulani ethnic group from other villagers and murdered 32 people, targeting them for their perceived support of the jihadists.
Islamist militants first settled in the rural areas of the central region more than 10 years ago, and began to launch sporadic attacks against police stations, elected officials and religious leaders who spoke out against them from 2012. They grew in boldness and violence, causing heavy losses among Mali’s security forces. Civilians living in their area of control were suddenly subjected to new, unofficial laws, imposed by the jihadists.
Amadou Koufa, a radical Fulani preacher, was the founder and leader of the Macina Liberation Front, which merged with other militant Islamist groups to form Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM). He swore allegiance to al-Qaida and became leader of the local “franchise” of the jihadist group, the Organization of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (the equivalent of Isis is the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS). Koufa is behind dozens of attacks on Mali’s armed forces, participating in the 2013 assault on the city of Konna, when Islamist militants’ push south into Mali led the French to insurgency.
Koufa, who is in the UN sanctions list for its ties to al-Qaida, recruits among young pastors taking advantage of feelings of exclusion and lack of economic opportunities in the region. The villagers saw their young men transform into fighters under its influence.
“I’ve seen friends who left town and came back with some money, sometimes a motorcycle,” says a man in his 30s, who asked not to be identified. Originally from the Mondoro area of the Mopti region in central Mali near the Burkina Faso border, he now lives in a shelter in a landfill in the capital Bamako, where Fulani herdsmen and their families established a slum camp after fleeing. the violence.
“At that time, I was living with my mother and my younger brother. We did not have our own livestock, we worked as shepherds for others. I thought that joining the jihadists was an opportunity to start over, ”he says.
But the lure of a new cause and a little money didn’t last long. Just three months later, his new Puritan comrades beat him up for smoking a cigarette. He escaped with a badly broken knee. “I was there for the money, the little things we could get after the fight or from the villagers,” he says. “But others were there to get revenge. Against the authorities, or sometimes against a neighbor with whom they did not agree. Jihadists can arrest, intimidate or kill whoever they want ”.
Bréma Ely Dicko, an anthropologist from Mali, says the crisis has changed the established order in Mali. “Many of those who joined the armed groups are young men who come from the lower classes of society, known as ‘prisoners’ or ‘slaves’ in Mali, who are in the service of the upper castes,” he says.
“Many positions of authority, such as village chiefs, imams, were hereditary. But now, those who have the power are the ones who have the weapons. “He says that the people of the region” are realistic about the fact that the state is not going to regain control soon. Therefore, they turn to those who can best provide them some form of protection and stability. “
Amarou Gourro Diallo lives along the Niger River in a small apartment on an old bank. Like his father and grandfather before him, he is the chief of Nantaka, a large village on the other side of the wide river, where small wooden boats carry passengers from one place to another. “It’s different there,” he says. “It would not be safe for you to meet me there.”
When he began to see armed groups roaming around, he was scared. Remember how a teenager who wanted to join them was beaten up by his family to teach him a lesson. That was four or five years ago. Since then, many young people have gone to what they euphemistically call “the forest.”
Others have learned to live under the yoke of these new legislators, who closed schools, banned music, imposed a strict dress code and imposed their own taxes.
“If you obey their rules, they don’t give you trouble,” says the boss. “They also collect the zakat, to [religious] Tax on their properties, in money or livestock. “And those who do not pay? He laughs.” You must pay. “But that is no longer his main concern. In 2018 the arrests began.
“The Malian army has done us more harm. They arrested dozens of Fulani men, whom they were able to find. I was among them, ”says Diallo. “They released some of us, but they took the rest and killed them.” Twenty-five bodies were later discovered in various mass graves.
“They said they were all terrorists,” he says. But they were innocent. Some of them were old, they had nothing to do with it. [insurgency]. There has been no justice, to this day. “
Fulani men are automatically perceived as suspects by the Malian army, says Ousmane Dicko, president of the youth wing of Tabital Pulaaku in Mopti, a civil organization that defends Fulani interests.
“There are many disappearances and executions. People have to live by the rules imposed by the jihadists. But they are also harassed, sometimes killed, by those who are supposed to protect them. “
The encouragement by the Malian authorities to create “self-defense groups” to help deal with the insurgency has become an important catalyst in the escalation of the conflict.
“The soldiers did not know the field well, so the Dogon began to lead them. As revenge, the jihadists killed the Dogon peasants when they went to the fields and burned the grain reserves in the villages, ”says Enock Sagara, drinking cola in the courtyard of his bar in Sévaré, about six miles from Mopti. He says he is affiliated with these Dozo militias, who are accused of massacres and summary executions of the Fulani people. “They are lies,” he says. “We are just defending ourselves.”
In the Mali war, everyone sees themselves as the other’s victims. “We cannot ignore that the jihadists are supported by their comrades [Fulani] men, ”says Sagara. “They hide among themselves and come out at night to attack. We had accepted the Fulani in our land, but now they are hurting us. “
All parties have exploited the old rivalries between the Fulani herdsmen and the Dogon farmers, further exacerbating them by demographic pressure on the land and the proliferation of firearms. The state is generally absent and religious and community leaders, unable to ensure the safety of their villagers, are losing their authority, making it difficult to resolve tensions through traditional and respected conflict resolution methods.
More than 1,500 conflict-related deaths were recorded in the Mopti region in 2020, the deadliest year since hostilities began, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, an organization that monitors and analyzes conflicts.
“This has nothing to do with jihad or Islam. What I see are dispossessed people, whose relatives have been murdered. They take up arms to demand justice, ”says 56-year-old Hamadoun Bolly, who had to leave his village two years ago. He lost dozens of cows and sheep, everything he owned. “When young people go to the ‘forest’ to fight, of course it will make things worse, but how are we supposed to stop them?”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism