Suddenly Timbuktu does not seem so far away anymore
Tahar Djaout wrote in “The Last Summer of Reason”:
Birds are the very personification of liberty. As soon as some sky ceases to live up to the image of their desires, they gather together, confer, and take flight on a very long migration on which some of them lose their life. That is the price for living as one with your desires, in landscape and horizons attuned to yourself.
After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi last spring, Tuareg rebels, formerly in the Libyan army, embarked on this migration in order to carve out an independent homeland in north-eastern Mali. Their desire for autonomy can be traced back to the French colonization of large parts of West Africa in the nineteenth century. However, it was not until Gaddafi’s death that the resistance became wellarmed due to the stockpiles of Libyan weapons left unguarded. As a military coup ensued in Mali’s capital Bamako, the Touraeg staged an offensive against the anemic central government.
The organization The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) conducted the bulk of the fighting to now control 300,000 square miles of northern Mali. However, two Islamic groups, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa began to wrestle power from the initial movement in order to impose a strict interpretation of Sharia law. These tensions culminated in the two Islamic groups, along with support from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magrheb, pushing MNLA out of the northern city of Gao on June 27th. Since then, northern Mali has become the largest and most profitable stronghold controlled by Al Qaeda affiliates.
These hardened Islamists have banned alcohol, cigarettes, and even music. Certain elements of the rich legacy of Malian music could be stamped out. It is reported that people face punishments for even having a musical ring tone on their mobile phones. Residents have been forced to play excerpts from the Quran to avoid intimidation.
Criminal trials have been replaced by groups of elders who discuss and proscribe the appropriate punishment for crimes. Cases of women being enforced into marriage have increased and others are sold for less than $1,000. Ivan Simonovic, a Senior Human Rights Advisor at the United Nations, said in October: “"We have three cases of public execu- tions. We have eight cases of amputations, a number of cases of flogging.” Derived from the Quranic verse 5:38, elders adhere to the rule that a thief who steals more than a quarter of a dinar (current market rates come to approximately $ 50) will have their hand cut off. Human Rights Watch says that around 14 people suspected of thievery had their limbs chopped off. Aliou Toure, a police chief who cut off his own brother’s hand after being accused of stealing said, “We had no choice but to practice the justice of God.”
Alongside these brutal punishments, Islamist groups are keeping control through lucrative industries including kidnapping and drug smuggling. Targets include mainly Western tourists and NGO workers. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magrheb has amassed over $90 million dollars over the past decade from kidnapping alone because governments such as Switzerland and France are paying huge ransom payments for the release of their citizens. The New York Times quoted Oumar Ould Hamaha, one Islamist commander based in northern Mali: “The source of our financing is the Western countries. They are paying for Jihad.”
Apart from kidnappings, Islamic groups have taken control of important smuggling networks in West Africa. Many extremists transport drugs, mainly Afghan heroine, to the markets in Western Europe. Cartels from Latin America have taken advantage of this power vacuum in order to transport huge quantities of cocaine through the country. In one case dating back to 2008, Malian forces intercepted 750kg of cocaine. Mali is quickly becoming a crossroads for violence, drugs, and kidnappings.
Unfortunately, the people living under these harsh conditions cannot simply fly away like the birds Tahar Djaout writes about. They must endure under these strict conditions. Some have secretly wished for a foreign intervention to drive the Islamists out. Although the United Nations called for an African force to be deployed in Mali, Western powers were hesitant to provide anything more than logistical support. That was until approximately 900 Islamists stormed the town of Konna, pushing back the precarious line of government controlled area. On Friday, with the extremists 300 miles from the Malian capital, France intervened in the country by providing the Malian army essential air support. France’s Presi- dent Francois Hollande promised that French forces would remain “as long as necessary.”
Had these organizations held their ground in North Mali, they would not have faced a foreign intervention for months. However, due to their offensive last week into central Mali, many countries, including France and the United States, feared that the central government would fall. With France’s involvement, international attention has shifted toward the crisis in Mali. West African forces are mobilizing to be sent into the country and the United States has pledged logistical support. There is also speculation that Algeria might get involved militarily. It seems that the Al Qaeda affiliates most recent aggression has triggered an international response and it is unclear yet how many countries will get involved.
A Malian military vehicle crosses a strategic bridge over a dam on the Niger River secured by French forces in Markala, Mali January 18, 2013.