Seyo Sangho's husband was arrested by Malian army soldiers at the central market in Konna in central Mali, 900km north of Bamako, after getting into an argument with another man. “I haven’t seen him since,” she says. “That was 10 days ago.”
Residents of Konna told IRIN they are suspicious of everyone: bearded men, women in hijabs, beggars from the Dogon plateau, students in the Koranic school, and the army, which is said to be a little trigger-happy.
Throughout Mali many blame the Tuaregs for opening the door to the rebels and assisting them in seizing two thirds of the country. Tuareg separatists took control of the north in April but were quickly pushed aside by well-armed Islamist groups.
Even non-Tuaregs and non-Arabs are scared. "I do not take my car in the evening. If I hear a soldier asking me to stop, I know it’s over,” Cheiko, a driver from Sévaré, 60km south of Konna, told IRIN.
Network of informants
The national authorities have announced a hotline to report cases of suspected jihadists, as part of a network of informants to watch out for any strangers. Some say they fear the line is being used too hastily, and many Peulhs and Tuaregs are fleeing the towns of Diabaly, Konna and Douentza, afraid of being seen as infiltrators.
“People disappear and are never seen again. Any movements or people who are not known in the neighbourhood risk being reported,” said Aissata, a young woman in Konna.
In Mopti and Sévaré - next-door to each another - people have also changed their behaviour, most trying to keep a low profile. "We are not suspicious by nature, this is a very cosmopolitan town,” said the mayor of Mopti, Oumar Bahtily. "However, the way things have turned out we have had to change our habits.”
“We are not targeting Tuaregs or ethnic Arabs, but if a stranger arrives in town, we need to know who it is,” he continued.
Teenagers executed, say witnesses
On the outskirts of Sévaré, in the Berlin neighbourhood, several residents told IRIN they had witnessed 15 young men being executed. Former Malian soldier Moussa Sidibé told IRIN he saw about 15 men brought to a field, where they were shot in the back, and their bodies then dumped in a well.
"I saw it with my own eyes. The men were brought to the field where they were shot by the soldiers,” said Sidibé.
A woman who lives near the field and asked to remain unnamed, was one of several to confirm the story. “I was on my way to the well when I saw the military in the field together with three men tied up by their hands and feet. The boys looked young, maybe not more than 17, 18. The last thing I saw was a boy being shot in his back.”
Both the army and the local police in Sévaré deny having any knowledge of people arrested or shots being fired. "If shots were fired in Sévaré, it was surely people celebrating the liberation of the city,” said Commander Mariko, head of the Sévaré police force. ”We have no executioners here. All suspects were sent to Bamako. We are at war, but working under the law.”
At the army base, spokesperson Capt Faran Keita denied any knowledge of suspects being killed.
Several others shared stories of disappearances or killings. In the village of Nyminyana, a few kilometres from Douentza (165km from Mopti), which had been held by Islamist groups and was recaptured by French and Malian troops on 21 January, Malian soldiers asked for the town’s `marabout’ (Muslim religious leader) and arrested him. A few days later villagers found his body burned in the bush.
“The rebels never set foot in the village. We don’t understand why the marabout was killed, but maybe they wanted to settle old scores,” said one villager who asked to remain anonymous, afraid of being targeted himself.
“You can get away with it.”
The system of informants has led to arrests in Sévaré of people arriving from the north, with residents telling IRIN northerners who arrived at the bus station were stopped, beaten and arrested.
“A friend from Gao arriving in Sévaré, was brought to the army headquarters and beaten. When the soldiers finally released him, he immediately returned north,” Abba, an unemployed tourist guide, told IRIN.
Philippe Bilion, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who is investigating reports of abuses in Sévaré, carries a list with the names of people arrested.
“Most of the people who were arrested are Peulh, an ethnic nomadic group, much like the Tuaregs. Others were suspected of intervening with the Islamist rebels,” he told IRIN.
“So far we have seen no will from the authorities to look into the missing people’s cases. The signal they are sending to the soldiers is that you can get away with it. If they don’t take action now we risk seeing more of these incidents as the conflict continues.”
Keita admitted arrests had taken place. “The country is in a state of emergency; these measures are necessary in order to protect the lives of civilians,” he told IRIN.
France has called for international human rights observers to be deployed to Mali to deter further unlawful violence and to stop inter-communal violence from mounting.
Analysts have pointed to real fear if Mali’s many civilian militia groups join the effort to root out Jihadists.
Many say international monitors or troops are needed to monitor goings-on.
Militias ready to fight
In Sévaré at least three militia groups have been trained - many of them by former soldiers - to help the under-funded and poorly-trained Malian army hunt down Jihadists.
At the camp of Ganda Iso just outside Sévaré, a militia made up of mostly ethnic Songhai - many of them refugees from the north - about 1,000 men, prepare to fight. Dressed in shabby makeshift uniforms and with only a handful of rusty Kalashnikovs they are badly equipped for combat. But their leader, Ibrahim Diallo, says they are ready to fight as soon as they are given proper rifles by the army.
"We're ready to rid the country of the terrorists who helped rebels seize our home towns. Now we’re only waiting for the army to accept us,” Diallo told IRIN.
At the Sévaré military base Keita said militia members are expected to make up at least half of the new recruits, as Mali's army rebuilds, but none have yet been brought in.
"We will not just throw them into the fight. They will receive proper training like everyone else,” he said.