Mali, Foyta – Hammy Ag Ehya was a veteran soldier in the Malian army. But now he’s a rebel fighter who says he regrets only the 20 years he wasted defending Mali.
Around a campfire in the wilderness and while a lamb is being prepared for roasting, Ag Ehya and a few dozen of his comrades make sure they display their readiness for war in front of our camera.
Their leaders have just agreed on a new deal with the government, which is supposed to end the conflict.
But Ag Ehya and his co-fighters don’t seem to care about that process.
“Whoever talks of guarantees for ending the conflict only talks nonsense,” Ag Ehya says.
“That’s a big lie. This war cannot be ended with a stroke of a pen. As long as we’re denied territorial separation there will be no end to the war.”
In a few minutes, nearly two dozen army Toyota lorries drive into the makeshift base in northern Mali near the border with Mauritania.
They are fully loaded with fighters with light and heavy guns and rocket launchers.
‘Fight for independence’
Ag Ehya’s elder brother Himmety, who served even longer in the Malian army, stands beside him with a khaki turban around his neck toting an old Kalashnikov.
I ask if he thinks the agreement marks the end of the conflict.
It's not Mali that gave us the weapons. We paid for them with our own blood. Now Mali wants to take them from us a second time. But its behavior during the previous experience is the cause of our rejection now.
“In fact this is the real beginning!” he says.
“Now we can start to take security matters in Azawad into our own hands. Then we will start the next phase, the fight for independence.”
Recently, they made new territorial gains, pushing the army further south.
The rebels announced an independent state in northern Mali in 2012. But under the present agreement, they get only a type of decentralised local administration.
The positive point Himmety referred to was that the agreement has given the rebels a share in the keeping of security in the north.
But on the other hand it implies an eventual integration into the official state apparatus and an eventual disarmament.
This is a prospect that provokes anger and uncertainty among the rebels.
“As long as there’s no separation there will be no disarmament,” the younger brother vehemently declares.
“It’s not Mali that gave us the weapons. We paid for them with our own blood. Now Mali wants to take them from us a second time. But its behaviour during the previous experience is the cause of our rejection now.”
The rebels say they agreed to disarm in the past after the peace treaty of 1993 and 1994, but instead of gaining their rights the army began to kill them.
Several peace agreements in the past have failed. This is why the people of the north are lukewarm about the prospects of success for the new agreement.
On June 15, several movement leaders held a rally at the Mbera camp for Malian refugees in south east Mauritania. But their efforts to sell the agreement to the people were rejected.
These are the same leaders who announced what they called the Independent Republic of Azawad three years ago.
Several months later in Burkina Faso, they signed a deal waiving their claim of independence in favour of limited self-rule.
However, Mali’s government has failed to even discuss the self-rule demand.
The new treaty will allow only:
• The right to form local institutions in the north.
• More parliamentary representation for the north in Bamako.
• A role in the region’s security for armed movements.
• More economic and social development in the area.
The rebels’ demands that the government spend 40 percent of the national budget on development in the north has been rejected.
In the face of such perceivably painful concessions, the rebel leaders have resorted to a rhetoric based on realpolitik.
“We think this is the most we can get at the moment in view of the current context and of the world community level of readiness to accept our demands as we put them” Redhwan Mohamed Ali, the deputy president of the rebel coalition Supreme Council for Azawad tells me.
“So I think this is what’s available for us now.”But grass-root northern Malians have a different opinion.
“This document does not respond to our demands and those of our leaders,” says a young refugee.
“If they want a final solution they should separate us from Mali. Let us remain here in our drought-stricken Azawad and let them enjoy their green Mali. We don’t want Mali and we don’t want any reconciliation with it.”
A leading female social activist in the camp says: “It’s clear that we have been forced to sign this agreement. Indeed, we don’t see any single point in it that serves our interests.”
At the refugee camp which was first created a quarter of a century ago, there was a general feeling of deja vu.
How many agreements like this have been made in the past and how many of them have no sooner been signed than violated?
The people here tell me they have all lost count. But they know that the present agreement is not going to be different.