Mali’s north faces a new fear

As al-Qaeda-linked rebels withdraw, reprisal attacks and human rights abuses are reported in the north.

Rights groups allege that Malian soldiers are executing civilians [EPA]
Rights groups allege that Malian soldiers are executing civilians [EPA]

BAMAKO, Mali – Many of Mali’s northerners have been liberated of the armed groups that invaded their communities and imposed upon them a harsh form of Islamic law. 

However, with growing evidence of reprisal killings and raids targeting Tuareg and Arabs based on their ethnicity, whole communities now have something new to fear – collective punishment. 

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH by its French acronym), told Al Jazeera it has confirmed at least 11 executions, and is investigating dozens of other cases.

Florent Geel, head of the Africa desk, said the victims were suspected of being supporters or members of the armed groups. The killings took place in the garrison town of Sevare on January 9 and 10.

At least three of the victims were killed inside the military base, while others were killed in a hospital and at a bus stop, Geel said. 

At least two Tuareg men were also executed in the central town of Niono, both the FIDH and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have confirmed. 

HRW has spoken with an eyewitness who saw the two men were taken from their homes at around midday on January 18, and executed within the compound where they live shortly after.

Their killers were wearing Mali army uniforms and driving military vehicles, she said.

“This appears to be a targeted killing by security forces,” Tirana Hassan, an emergency researcher for HRW, told Al Jazeera. 

Tuareg and Arab civilians are terrified of being hunted down as their community suffers collective punishment for its perceived support for the armed groups, she said. 

“There’s a history of reprisals,” she said, adding that the national authorities should have done more to educate the public and the security forces to avoid ethnic tensions, particularly given the likelihood that this conflict could become a protracted one.

Historic Mistrust  

“Don’t ask me about the dead. I’m concerned with the living, 

– Col. Diaran Kone, Head of Mali’s Military Press office

Large numbers of Tuareg in the army have defected in recent years, many of them accused of being spies for the the Liberation Army of Azawad (MNLA). 

The authorities have set up a hotline where anyone can inform on people they believe are acting “suspiciously”.

And pro-government militia have gathered lists of people they accuse of having links to both the groups, and the MNLA.

The FIDH’s said that while there might be genuine cases of infiltration, the authorities needed to respect human rights principles in the way they treated any suspects. 

“The nature of this war is asymmetric, with civilians who look like fighters and fighters who look like civilians,” Geel said.

Colonel Diaran Kone, head of the Malian military’s press office, refused to discuss any details of either civilians or Malian soldiers killed in the fighting. 

“Don’t ask me about the dead. I’m concerned with the living,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview at the ministry of defence in Bamako. 

He dismissed concerns that, given the nature of guerrilla warfare, the armed forces might have trouble distinguishing civilians from members of the armed groups. 

“We only have one enemy [here in Mali]; terrorists and terrorism,” he said. “As long as a single terrorist is alive, humanity will not be happy. That means eliminating all terrorists and all forms of terrorism.” 

The French military are not currently giving interviews in Bamako and were unavailable for comment. 


Mohammed Agata, an craftsman from a small village 25km south of Timbuktu brought his family south three weeks ago, fleeing the imminent fighting.

“The soldiers don’t know who is who. People were already afraid of the government,” he said, referring to previous government crackdowns against the Tuareg.

French drones had been flying over the area nightly since October, and he feared that the when the armed forces came to oust the armed groups, civilians might also become targets. 

Like many Tuareg, Agata’s family has suffered under the harsh interpretation of Islamic law imposed by the armed men who took control of their town last April.

The newcomers were aversive to many aspects of Tuareg culture, outlawing their music, some types of traditional clothing and forbidding traditional cross-like symbols which appear in many of their artifacts. 

The flow of tourists to Timbuktu came to an abrupt halt, destroying his main source of income.

Agata’s brother was given ten lashes after the usurpers caught him smoking. 

Now that he has come to Bamako, he is being treated with suspicion by many southerners. 

He is too afraid to wear his traditional Tuareg clothing outside his home, although he cannot hide his fair skin. People in the area where he is staying keep coming in to his home to keep an eye on him.   

Tuareg are a minority in Mali, particularly in the south of the country. 

There have been dozens of cases of Tuareg living in Bamako being intimidated and having their houses looted by security forces in the week of January 14, according to the FIDH. 

Too late?

The Malian authorities have been calling on the international community to help providing training and equipment to its armed forces since early 2012, as it faced an enemy with superior arms and experience.

Western and African governments refused to provide it with arms or any form of training after a coup d’etat in March 2012, insisting instead that Mali accept foreign intervention.

Now that French and ECOWAS troops have arrived on Malian soil, the European Union has agreed to provide the training, with a team of European experts due to arrive in mid-February. 

That training will probably include a human rights component, Al Jazeera learned in a briefing by General Francois LeCointre on Wednesday.

For the victims of the wave of reprisals currently taking place across the country, that training will come too late.

You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter

Source: Al Jazeera

More from News
Most Read