Malians forced to live under strict religious rules since Islamist groups captured the country’s northern region nine months ago, and those who fled south, are frustrated by perceived central government inaction.
Some who fled have expressed their despair.
“I don’t understand the government’s inaction and the response by the international community. Everybody is speaking, every day there are nice speeches, but no action on the ground,” said 38-year-old Amidou Maïga, who fled from Timbuktu, a UNESCO-listed site now in the hands of the Islamists who have destroyed ancient tombs and mosques there.
“The occupiers are violating people’s basic rights. They rape, steal, amputate and destroy property. In the meantime the politicians are fighting over positions in Bamako. It’s very unfortunate. We in the north have been totally forgotten.”
The Islamists have banned secular music, football and alcohol and reportedly meted out harsh punishments, including amputations, to those accused of flouting the prohibition.
Moumouni Damango, head of a crisis committee in the central town of Mopti, said the army should be given time to prepare for an offensive against the Islamist groups in the north. “I perfectly understand the anger and the need to go to war, but they [people in the north] should know that an intervention is under way.”
Meanwhile, some civilians are considering joining a group offering combat training in the central town of Sévaré in the hope that it might push the government to act.
“As our army doesn’t want to fight, if I get the chance I wouldn’t hesitate to join a self-defence group doing training. At least they know what they want -and they want to fight,” said Oumar Maïga, a resident of Gao, one of the key northern towns under Islamist control.
“I believe that if the government was doing more to help the displaced that would calm down the anger. But the NGOs are helping the displaced more than the authorities in Bamako,” said Moussa Cissé, of the aid group Fondation Orange.
The UN Security Council on 20 December 2012 authorized a military intervention in Mali, but troops are not expected on the ground until later this year. Mali’s interim government established after the 22 March coup is grappling with internal wrangles, not least of which was the forced resignation of the prime minister in December.
Former coup leader Amadou Haya Sanogo who forced Cheick Modibo Diarra from the premiership for allegedly blocking “political transition”, said preparations were under way to recapture the north. Sanogo retains political influence despite handing over to a civilian authority after ousting former President Amadou Toumani Touré.
“Rest assured we are working on retaking the occupied regions. I cannot reveal the military strategy we are working on now. I understand that people are impatient and they are right. The army is preparing and we are working to boost the morale of the troops. Going ahead and later making tactical retreats is out of the question. If we go to war, there’s no turning back,” Sanogo told reporters on 25 December.
Host families struggle
Families in southern Mali towns hosting northern relatives who fled insecurity and a severe drought that ravaged the Sahel region in 2012 are struggling to cope.
At Mohamed Touré’s home in the central town of Mopti, 21 people, including 14 members of his brother’s family, now live together. “I swear to you, I go to bed but I can’t get to sleep anymore,” Touré told IRIN.
“How do you feed 21 people, take care of their health and house them on a salary of 100,000 [CFA] francs (US$200)?” said the government worker. “As a host family, I’ve receive only two sacks of millet and 5kg of sugar since I took charge of these people.
“I never thought that liberating the north would take such a long time. The authorities and the army are giving too much time to the armed bandits. In reality, it has never been a priority. It’s nothing but talks without concrete actions.”
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is trying to resolve Mali’s months-long crisis which allowed Islamist groups to hold sway in the north. The regional body, which has been pressing for the deployment of an intervention force, has also opened talks with the Islamist group Ansar Dine and the separatist Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.
“Our army should be the first on the ground. It should not be waiting for ECOWAS troops or the UN’s green light. If we wait for the UN, the north will never be liberated because some countries are only looking after their own interests,” said Timbuktu resident Al Hamdoum.
For imam El Hadj Oumar Bocoum in Sévaré a peace agreement with the Islamists would spare civilians the dangers of war.
“Our wish is that blood is not spilled again in this country. It would be ideal if the occupiers of the north and the authorities in Bamako can come to an agreement without firing a single bullet.”