Whether they are soldiers, students, teachers or jihadists, they are all trapped in the vicious cycle of violence that has plagued central Mali since 2015, where they had to learn to survive, defend themselves or fight. Each one represents a facet of the conflict.
For a year and a half, to document a human reality often overshadowed by the death toll, AFP collected the testimony of eight people who had to change their lives.
The interviews took place at different times in the capital Bamako, as well as in Mopti and Sevaré, in an area with difficult and dangerous access for journalists and humanitarian personnel.
In this region of the “center of Mali” in the Sahel, the violence began in 2015 with the appearance of a jihadist group led by the Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa.
Affiliated with the Al Qaeda nebula, the group rejects the existence of any state and wants to impose an Islamic society. She sought out men in the marginalized Fulani community before branching out. With its emergence, old antagonisms between communities, around land in particular, were revived.
Groups were formed that wanted to guarantee the defense of their community, such as Dan Nan Ambassagou, within the Dogon. The army has been accused by some NGOs of occasionally collaborating with them to fight against the jihadists.
Some 200,000 people have fled the violence, and thousands have died.
The eight former inhabitants of these places marked by violence spoke to AFP asking that they not be identified, for fear of reprisals. Their names have been changed.
They agreed to bear witness to a specific reality at a precise moment to show the complexity of the conflict in the center of Mali, a vicious circle of amalgamations, cycles of retaliation and recruitment.
Georges, Dogon militiaman: “I have understood”
Georges, a hotel manager in the Dogon savannah, in his 40s, saw the war come in 2017. Tourists stopped visiting, weapons appeared and he joined a Dogon militia.
“There were never any problems between the Fulani and the Dogon. But little by little they appeared (…)”bill.
“The troublesome Fulani (jihadists) came next, and we were told they were attacking neighboring villages. We had to defend ourselves.” Explain.
“We took care of the route, we asked people for something to buy cigarettes or groceries. But then the fights started. Some drank too much, harnessed its power. At a certain moment, I understood. We were no longer fighting the jihadists. We blackmailed people, even the Dogon themselves (…). So I went to see the boss and told him I had to go to Bamako. And I never came back.”
Georges now lives in the capital of Mali, where he works on construction sites.
Fatoumata, schoolgirl “They must have thought I was dead”
Fatoumata, 14, is shy and looks down at the ground as she recalls the bloody night of March 23, 2019. Gunmen arrived in the Fulani part of Ogossagou village. The pro-Dogon militia Dan Nan Ambassagou was accused of what happened. An investigation was opened, the results of which have not yet been released.
“The attack (…) occurred at the beginning of the harvest season. dawn. They surrounded the town, they started shooting.”
“We hid in the cabin. They were shooting at us from outside. I ran out, entered another cabin with my mother. We crouched down but the men entered, they shot at all the people who were there”.
“There were eight of us in the cabin. Six died. I felt pain in my legs, I passed out. They must have believed that she was dead. When I woke up, the relief teams were there. I opened my eyes, my mother was there, next to me. She dead”.
At least 157 people died that night, Fatoumata, who suffered fractures in both legs, found refuge in a camp for displaced people in Mopti, the regional capital.
Sidiki, teacher: schools closed
Amadou Koufa’s jihadists attack all the symbols of the State and of the Western world in the region. Schools are a target. About 1,000 are closed. Sidiki, a friendly 36-year-old Dogon, had ambitions to lead one.
“We knew that the situation was not good (…). It was 11:45 that Wednesday (…). The noise of the motorcycles was deafening, they surrounded the school. We hear the bursts (of gunshots). They were shooting into the air and against doorways. They gathered us all abroad, teachers and students. (…) They addressed the director: ‘Why? We told you to close the school.’ They started beating him. We had tears in our eyes, but we remained dignified. They beat me too. I realized everything when I got home. With my wife we left, ”she recalls.
Sidiki now lives in a big city in the center of the country. She doesn’t have a job and would like to go back to teaching.
Bachir, journalist: Fulani does not mean jihadist
Bachir, a 42-year-old Fulani, has an easy smile but a deep voice when he recounts the “injustice” of his double sentence: first the jihadists accused him of being an army informer, and then the Dogon accused him of being a jihadist.
“That the jihadists accuse me of being an informant because I work on the radio, I’m not surprised, because they don’t understand anything. But that the population thinks that because I am a Fulani I am a jihadist, it is an amalgamation“, it states.
Bachir has become an Arabic teacher in a central city. He always collaborates, at a distance, with his radio.
Rokia, fisherwoman: “We never saw them again”
Amid the smell of fish, and under the cloud of flies that fly over her small straw hut, Rokia, in her 50s, sobs. A large part of her family was kidnapped in 2018 on the banks of the Niger River.
“We were in five canoes. Armed men from the shore signaled to us. It was a jihadist checkpoint.
“If we didn’t stop, they killed us. They asked the men to get down. Among the 23 people, there was my husband Ba, my brothers Amadou and Sinbarma, my children Mahamat and Lassana”.
“I went to speak with the jihadists, I told them that we had not done anything (…) that we only wanted to fish. They told me that they were there for God (…). I don’t know why they did that.”
“Three years have passed and I have not seen my husband, my brothers, my children. My life has no meaning”remember.
Rokia and the women of the family now live around Mopti. They no longer fish and survive thanks to the help of local NGOs.
Bilal: with the jihadists to get out of trouble
Reseller of smoked fish for the bozo, Bilal, 37, could not earn enough. The fish trade, one of the lungs of the local economy, was affected by insecurity. When a friend offered him a small job, he did not hesitate.
“I went to the mountains to see them through an intermediary. They suggested I stay. During the first three months I found friends there from childhood and from the madrasa (Koranic school). He ran errands: fetch water, clean motorcycles. The base was in the forest, everything was very organized.”
“I was convinced that those people they call jihadists had more respect for human beings than the army. They did not think they were above the rules, contrary to the military. The people they attack do not respect Sharia law. It is a battle against the injustice of the State”, he maintains.
There were people from all the communities in the group, but a lot of Fulani of course. I am Bamanan (Bambara). I realized that they did not have the means to apply Sharia as they said. So some robbed, attacked villages to get food and cattle.”
“I went to see the judge at the camp, but he didn’t want to do anything. While he put me to sleep I analyzed my life every night. I think I have always been a good person. Could he participate in those attacks on people just to eat?
“I missed my wife. When we got married, her family entrusted her to me and I abandoned her. That lasted several nights. Each time she convinced me more. To leave I went to see a shaman during a purchase that he had to make. He helped me”.
Bilal is alert and has a piercing gaze. She lives anonymously in a big city and learns masonry. His wife no longer wants to see him.
Kassim, merchant: “They want to create hate”
Kassim, 42 years old, with an imposing physique and a short beard, is a Fulani trader. He lives in a city crossed by a highway. There are many jihadist infiltrations, as well as Malian soldiers.
“It was a Monday at 3:00 p.m. She was with two young men and their animals talking on the side of the road. There were sheep and goats. A military truck arrived and stopped. They told us to get on, I asked why.”
“Since I am the known president of an association, I told them to go see the mayor, the sub-prefect, to confirm my identity. They didn’t tell me anything, just that they had some information. I am a Fulani, but I am not a jihadist!”
“In the back of the truck we were tied hand and foot, blindfolded. We spent 24 hours without eating or drinking. They took our blindfolds off to take a picture, and they added a gun that wasn’t ours. Then they took us to the gendarmerie.”
There they told us that we had weapons and a motorcycle. Yes, it was true about the motorcycle, which belonged to the association, but not the weapons! It was the photo’s fault. It’s false”.
“Finally, they took us to Bamako. The detention lasted 28 days until we were released. They think that we Fulani are all in agreement with jihad. They want to provoke hatred between the communities. They do that not to build, but to destroy Mali”.
Kassim returned to his city, because he says he had no other alternative. He would like to leave.
Malick, soldier: “My companions split in two”
On the front line, the Malian military is deployed in two retired camps. When they leave their bases, they are exposed to artisanal mines, one of the jihadists’ favorite modes of operation, as well as attacks on camps or caravans.
“In the place, in the morning, you drink a lot of coffee but of poor quality. Food, medicine and ammunition are missing. One morning (in recent years, he does not want to be more precise) in the camp we were alerted. It was 11:00. We left, the road was between two hills.”
“Fifteen people, four vehicles, including two trucks, no armored vehicles. We are going down the road and suddenly there is a loud explosion. Ears ring. I open my eyes and see my two companions split in two, with their intestines hanging out. Another was dead. The vehicle exploded. The image was etched forever.
“When I realized it, they were already shooting at us. There were tall bushes and they were hiding there. It lasted twenty minutes. We didn’t have enough ammunition and they wouldn’t stop shooting.”
“We managed to retreat under fire by crawling on the asphalt. I wouldn’t want anyone to experience a mine explosion. In the center, the jihadis are often Fulani and they use them against us. God decides everything, but I know that war is not the solution.”
Malick, in his thirties, was treated psychologically for months. He lives in Bamako waiting for a new destination.
(AFP Photos: MICHELE CATTANI)
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