Tuaregs hole up to escape reprisal attacks in Mali

24th January 2013, Comments 0 comments

Afraid to leave their homes and increasingly haunted by hunger, Tuaregs in Mali are facing a backlash after French-led troops halted a march south by Islamist rebels mainly comprising light-skinned people like them.

The Tuaregs, a Berber or native North African people, are easily identified by their flowing robes and turbans in this West African country which was sliced in two after rebels from their community launched a fresh bid for independence in January last year.

"If you reveal our names, we are dead," said a Tuareg artisan speaking in hushed tones in Segou, about 270 kilometres (170 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako.

"We are scared to venture out, they say that we are with the rebels," another artisan said.

"We are Muslims, not terrorists," he added, saying he had come to Segou from the fabled city of Timbuktu in 1985 to "make a better living".

"Now we are hungry," he said.

"Here if you wear a turban, have a beard and wear a Tuareg robe, you are threatened," said a shop owner. "It has become very dangerous for us since this war started."

The Tuaregs, who have lived a nomadic lifestyle in the region for 2,000 years, were instrumental in helping groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seize control of huge swathes of northern Mali last year.

There are about 500,000 Tuaregs in Mali, which is home to some 16 million people and has been divided for 10 months between the desert north, held by armed Islamist groups mainly made up of Arabs and Tuaregs, and the government-controlled south.

Nearly two weeks after France swept to Mali's aid to stop an Islamist advance towards the capital, reports emerged of atrocities committed by Malian soldiers and growing fears of attacks against light-skinned ethnic communities.

The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said that in the central town of Sevare at least 11 people were executed in a military camp near the bus station and the town's hospital, citing evidence gathered by local researchers.

Credible reports also pointed to around 20 other people having been executed in the same area and the bodies having been dumped in wells or otherwise disposed of, the organisation said.

At Niono, also in the centre, two Malian Tuaregs were executed by Malian soldiers, according to the FIDH.

The organisation called for an immediate independent inquiry commission to "determine the scale of the abuses and to punish the perpetrators."

"These abuses blemish the legitimacy of the operation to restore the territorial integrity (of Mali) and have to be investigated by the national authorities and, if necessary, the International Criminal Court (ICC)," said FIDH president Sidiki Kaba.

-- ICC opens probe into suspected war crimes --

The ICC opened an inquiry into suspected war crimes in Mali on January 16 but its focus, until now, was to be abuses carried out in the north of the country since Islamists and Tuareg rebels seized control there last April.

FIDH's reporting of executions in Sevare follows an unconfirmed report by the French weekly magazine L'Express of a mass execution of Islamist fighters who were detained there after fleeing French air strikes around the town of Konna in the opening days of the conflict.

Witnesses cited by L'Express said 25-30 Islamists had been buried in a pile of tyres which was then set alight, creating a powerful stench for several days.

Malian army chief General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele promised that any soldier involved in abuses would be brought to book.

"One mustn't get confused. Every white skin is not a terrorist or a jihadist and among the enemy which attacked our different position were many black skins. We are among brothers, whether one is black or white," he said.

The livelihood of the Tuareg artisans -- whose creations include ornate jewellery boxes crafted from embossed camel leather, silver jewellery and traditional knives -- has also taken a hit.

Tourism in Mali, once a popular travel destination, has dried up as the security situation has worsened.

But the traditional desert nomads have few options.

"If we flee, we will not get anything, they have taken everything we have. And how do we rebuild our lives and with what?" one said.

Local Tuaregs said many of their peers had fled to neighbouring Burkina Faso, fearing reprisals.

Yakouba, a youth from Mali's dominant Bambara ethnic group, said the Tuaregs were under great pressure.

"All those with light skins are threatened, it's not good as they don't dare move," he said.

© 2013 AFP

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