Caught in the crossfire of Mali’s war

Tuareg refugees fleeing Islamist rebels have taken  cover with the Dogon, an ancient tribe in central Mali. Now both fear annihilation as al-Qa’ida and Malian troops close in

Bandiagara

Homes curved into high sandstone escarpments, intricate animist paintings on deep cliff walls, a people practising elaborate traditional rituals centuries old: an ancient heritage which became a focus of academic study and a prized destination for international travel, but now in danger from intolerance and strife.

It is here, in Mali’s Dogon country, that the Tuareg had taken refuge, fleeing both Islamist persecution and the suspicious and trigger happy Malian forces. Twenty one people had set out from their village between Mopti and Timbuktu, fifteen now remained. Four were arrested by soldiers at a road block with threats that they would be executed; two others, brothers, returned home after hearing that their parents had been taken away by jihadist fighters. The rebellion, which began in the north of Mali and which is now tearing the country apart, was started by Tuareg separatists, once a significant part of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, armed with weapons looted from Libya. This has created deep enmities between the Tuareg and the Malian army, who blame them for creating the crisis the country now faces.

But the flames of rebellion only really began to burn when Islamists from across North and West Africa joined in the uprising. They soon had the whip hand, taking over the leadership of the revolt as well as much of the Tuareg arsenal.

Since then one of the rebel groups in particular, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, has been particularly active in hunting down its former Tuareg allies and occupying their land. There have also been allegations of Tuareg women being raped by the Islamists, and Tuareg children being forced to join their militias.

But the danger is not just from the jihad, as a grim discovery today in the city of Severi showed. Bodies had been stuck down a well next to a Christian cemetery; they were of Tuaregs who had been detained and shot dead by Malian forces, according to human rights activists and local people who had covered the top with red earth to stop the stench. Another two dozen, similarly disposed of, are said to be in the area. People in the neighbourhood were afraid to talk. “ There are some terrorists buried there, that’s all I can say. Our troops killed them,” said an elderly man who would rather not give his name.

“We are not involved in this war, we are farmers, peaceful people. That is what we told the soldiers who stopped our bus. But they did not care, they took away the men because they were young, because they said they may be terrorists,” said Abdulahi Ag Muhamed.

One of those taken was his 22 year old brother, Ibrahim. “They were saying they were going to shoot him and the others. Maybe they were trying to scare us, but we have heard stories about that happening, so, yes, we are very scared,” he said.

Such was the apprehension that the group, with young women and little children, decided to abandon the bus and take the very long way to the relative safety of the south through Dogon lands. The Qadir brothers separated and headed back to try and rescue their father, a schoolteacher who had made the mistake of arguing with young armed zealots about their vicious application of Sharia law.

Safar, a cousin, said: “We met people on the road who said their mother was freed, that is good. The father is an old man, so they may not hurt him too much. But these people are not like us, they do not respect the elders. They cut off the hand of a man in his 70s in Gao, his family were begging them to spare him. He died soon afterwards.”

The refugees were staying in a few abandoned huts before continuing their journey south, keeping to the trails along the sweeping bends of the Niger River, away from the main roads. Food had been sent for the last few days from households in the next valley  who face the same adversary, jihadist gummen coming through the territory.

The Dogon settlements were established in this region after their tribes’ collective decision a thousand years ago to trek to the wilderness rather than abandon their gods for Islam. The homes were embedded into the rocks to provide defence and distance from raiders. The community also had to be on guard against slave trader, because, as unbelievers, they were legitimate targets to be taken and sold as property.

A society was created which was in many ways unique and also insular. Between 400,000 and 800,000 Dogans are now spread to the borders with Bukino Fasso. The exotic tribes with their crocodile and snake deities became the subject of anthropological reports and a great attraction for visitors. Tourism, however, virtually dried up after the taking of first Western hostage in 2009 and the subsequent northern rebellion, taking away the region’s main source of income.

“The Sewa [the name given to the Dogons by neighbouring people] have been good to us. They are very kind, they do not want any trouble with anyone. We can see they are poor but they are helping us. We are sorry that the Salafists are troubling them, but this also means that this place is not safe for us and we must move on” said Abdulahi Ag Muhamed. Over time, many Dogon families became Muslims and Christians. But there are also significant numbers who remain active Animists with their belief in the many faces of God. As pagans, and not even ‘people of the Book’ as the Christians are, they provoke rage among those trying to create a Mali in the Salist image.

In the nearest village, set high on the rocks, sitting on a stone chair, dressed in a pure white robe, the Hogon, the spiritual leader, spoke about the misfortunes of his people.

“They [jihadists] used to come here trying to find people to kidnap, but they left us alone. Now there are no more tourists or aid workers here and they shoot at us. We had one man killed and three people injured about two weeks ago from men shooting from [pick-up] trucks,” he said. “We have always faced enemies who want to harm the Dogon. In the long ago time they would take away our people and crops. Now they want to take away our beliefs. We are a very tolerant people... We also respect people who are Muslims and Christians. So why are people now killing each other for God? We lost the money we needed to live when the tourists went away. Now we have fighting, the roads are unsafe, we have little food.  We are in a bad situation, very bad situation.”

While the Dogons have a deeply traditional and hierarchical social structure, there are established safeguards for women. This includes the entitlement to keep the proceeds from the sale of potteries and other goods they make which used to be popular items for sales in markets during better times when the tourists were here.

The predicament for women is very different in the territories in the sway of the Islamists. In the places they have occupied, women are forbidden from working outside or even walking to the markets for food unless they are fully covered and accompanied by a male family member. “It worries us. Our families need harmony. If the Islamists come here and impose these rules things will change,” the Hogan said.

The Dogon did not hesitate to feed the refugees, who set off while it was still light, hoping to leave behind the war in the north. But, with the jihadists roaming through Dogon Country, and army checkpoints ahead, no one was sure whether the war will catch up with them again. “We need to get through,  then I need to find out what happened to my brother; hopefully he is alright. We trust in Allah, that is all we can do”, said Abdulahi Ag Muhamed.

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