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If You Are From the North, You Are Guilty: On the Alienation and Abandonment of Internally Displaced Northern Malians

[Ansar Eddine rebels. Photo by Anne Look via Wikimedia Commons] [Ansar Eddine rebels. Photo by Anne Look via Wikimedia Commons]

A displaced Timbuktian entered a store in Bamako. “As-salamu alaykum,” he said.

The manager stiffened and eyed him suspiciously. “Why do you greet me with ‘As-salamu alaykum?’” he asked.

“Because we are both Muslim,” the Timbuktian said in the heavily-accented Bambara typical of the Songhay of northern Mali.

“No, we are in Bamako. Here we do not say ‘As-salamu alaykum.’ And why don’t you speak Bambara?”

“I do speak some Bambara,” the Timbuktian replied. “But I am from the north, where we don’t speak Bambara. And I greeted you as I did because it is what I’m used to, and because we are both brothers in Islam, aren’t we?”

To this, the manager said, “This is Mali. We speak Bambara. You come into my store. You don’t speak Bambara, and you say, ‘As-salamu alaykum.’ You are a terrorist. All of you [northerners] are terrorists.”  

*              *              *

This interaction is just one of many instances of discrimination faced by the internally displaced northern Malian community in Bamako.  As much of the rest of the world views Mali in terms of the absence/presence of Islamists, one must also consider this internally displaced community. After the brutal rebel occupation of northern Mali, which began in late March, 2012, numerous northern Malian residents fled the region—by bus, by boat, by car, by donkey, and even by foot. As of May 2012, internally displaced persons (IDPs) numbered 160,000.  However, by January 2013, that number may have swollen to as high as 230,000. Most have relocated to various cities in southern Mali such as Mopti, which hosts around forty thousand IDPs, and Bamako—“the heart of the displaced community,” according to one Timbuktian—which hosts at least fifty thousand. These ten months of displacement have exacerbated old inter-ethnic tensions and have potentially laid the groundwork for the creation of new imaginaries that undermine the idea of a cohesive Malian nation.

Immediately following the coup d’état in Bamako on 22 March 2012, Tuareg rebels in the Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) quickly overcame and occupied the towns and villages of northern Mali. A militant Tuareg nationalist group, the MNLA is a fusion of the Mouvement National de l’Azawad (MNA) and the Alliance Touareg Niger-Mali (ATNM). These movements have their roots in the Tuareg-led rebellions against the Malian state in 1990, 2006 and 2009. Militant Tuareg nationalism has a long history in Mali, going back to the creation of the Malian state during the decolonial period of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Recently, stories abound of MNLA abuse of the local communities, their destruction of banks and hospitals, beating of the elderly, and rape of women. Shortly thereafter, through an alliance with MNLA, the Islamist group Ansar Dine gained sway. While they initially provided humanitarian assistance to the civilian population and protected them from the MNLA’s harassment, over the following two months Ansar Dine gradually implemented their extremist form of shari’a. Ultimately, the MNLA failed to comply, and Ansar Dine rose up against them. Ansar Dine pushed opposing members of the MNLA out of the occupied areas and asserted their dominance in northern Mali. As a result, Ansar Dine replaced the MNLA’s indiscriminant abuse of the civilian population with their own brand of oppression. The consequence: the severe repression of women, the brutal chastisement of anyone who opposes or does not follow their cause, and the destruction of religiously and culturally significant mausoleums and monuments (and most recently, centuries-old manuscripts). Meanwhile, through their alliance with Ansar Dine, the various terrorist networks—including Al-Qaeda au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)—also gained a foothold in this occupied territory and further interrupted local social and economic life.

A central figure in both the Tuareg nationalist as well as the Islamist components of the rebellion is Iyad ag Ghali. Leading the MNA during the Tuareg rebellion of 1990 and serving as MNA’s secretary general in 1992, ag Ghali continues to harbor Tuareg nationalist sentiments, despite his previous claims to respecting Malian territorial integrity and promoting peace between the northern and southern regions. However, in the past two decades—particularly after spending time with radical Salafists in Saudi Arabia—he also developed militant Salafist leanings, eventually becoming the leader of the Islamist Ansar Dine movement. MNLA leadership reached out to ag Ghali for support in the rebellion, and indeed, Ansar Dine participated in a majority of the fighting in Kidal and Gao alongside the MNLA. Assisting some of the fighting, too, were AQMI and MUJAO, allies of Ansar Dine. However, the MNLA underestimated Ansar Dine’s jihadist elements. In May 2012 tensions between the two groups intensified. And in June 2012 the MNLA officially severed its alliance with Ansar Dine. However, it was ag Ghali who, having fused his Tuareg nationalist ideals with his Islamist movement, asserted Ansar Dine’s control over the occupation of northern Mali. Ansar Dine then proceeded to run the MNLA out of the north. As a result, many MNLA members fled Mali altogether, many crossing into Burkina Faso. 

Compounding factors—including destroyed infrastructure, disrupted commercial administration, prohibitions against men and women interacting in public, the rebels’ constant theft of locals’ money and food, and significantly fewer deliveries of goods and services between northern and southern Mali—have made most forms of work all but impossible in the north. Such disruption began almost immediately; upon entering the major cities in northern Mali, the rebel groups immediately proceeded to ransack stores, hospitals and military bases; damage or prohibit non-Islamic schools; and destroy Christian churches. But, the disruption intensified over the initial two months (April and May 2012) of the occupation, as Ansar Dine gradually implemented “shari’a. Once fully in place and enforced, many social and economic transactions became difficult, if not impossible, to conduct. The most common disruption was the prohibition of unmarried and unrelated individuals of the opposite sex from interacting in public. One displaced northerner explained that markets became difficult to manage, as vendors and customers are both male and female. Another mentioned that the Islamists in Timbuktu prevented the female principal of a school from going to work because some of the teachers are male. As a result of this social and economic disruption, many individuals found life in northern Mali too dangerous or economically unviable. Many fled. 

Unfortunately, suffering followed the internal refugees in different forms. Economic constrains prevented entire families from leaving. Indeed, while northern Malian towns are now often described as “ghost towns” and “only desert,” many people have had to remain. Most commonly, towards the beginning of the occupation, select family members—most commonly, those with the most education and skills, or the most able-bodied—traveled to various locales in an effort to find some kind of work. As a result, family members have dispersed throughout Mali and West Africa. In some instances, such dispersal occurred very rapidly, and some individuals do not know where all members of their family currently reside. Even families who do have multiple members staying in Bamako at once are frequently spread out; as Bamako is quite vast and transportation is expensive, displaced individuals try to stay near where they work (if they are fortunate enough to have it). 

Displacement in and of itself-- the separation from home, family, and friends-- augments the suffering that this community already experienced in the north. To be sure, this sense is partially re-created in pockets throughout Bamako; “Petit Timbuktus” and “Petit Gaos” abound. Regardless, worries are in no short supply, particularly as communication between the displaced community and those remaining the north has been difficult. As many displaced Timbuktians explain, for example, during the bulk of the Islamist occupation, their town had limited access to electricity. This, compounded by the Islamists interfering with cell phone towers, has made it difficult for the displaced Timbuktian community to receive word from their families. Displaced individuals constantly stress over their families’ well-being, and they agonize greatly when they cannot get in touch. 

Recently, the families experienced their most heightened concern yet. After the Franco-Malian army recaptured Konna, many explain, all communication between the displaced Timbuktians and their families ceased until 4 February 2013. The IDPs stipulate that the Islamists had disabled the cell phone towers. While the displaced individuals are hopeful regarding the potential liberation of their town, they also worry about civilian casualties. When the first footage of a “liberated” Timbuktu was shown on the news, for example, most rushed to see, not only the absence of Islamists, but also if they could identify family members in the crowd. The anxiety of the displaced community multiplied as they continued to receive word of the atrocious abuses perpetuated by the Malian military.  

Second to the worry they feel for their families and the sadness of separation, many displaced northerners express a high sense of abandonment by the Malian state. As the MNLA was already gaining strength in the Kidal region in February and March 2012, they explain that when Amadou Sonogo returned south and led his coup d’état, they knew that their problems in the north would only worsen. They stress that Sonogo must have known this as well, but deserted them anyway. Furthermore, it has not gone unnoticed by most northerners that they suffered through nine months of occupation and displacement without any progress towards liberation. Many explain, “I thought someone—maybe France, but also maybe the United States, England, Germany—would come and help us. I thought the occupation would be short.” Significantly, when France did intervene months later, it was only after the Islamists had taken Konna and were threatening Mopti in Mali’s southern region. It has also not gone unnoticed that the primary rhetoric that characterizes the intervention is that of anti-terrorism. French President François Hollande and Interim Malian President Dioncounda Traoré regularly emphasize defeating terrorism and halting the trafficking of weapons and drugs as their first objectives. The northerners’ plight remains secondary; they experience not only the trauma of being occupied and displaced, but also the bitterness and resentment of being abandoned.

Additionally, the northerners are also regularly subjected to discrimination at the hands of permanent Bamako residents, who the displaced individuals largely identify as Bambara. This discrimination manifests in numerous ways: 

Many displaced individuals complain of price gouging. Numerous refugees intended to rent their own apartments in Bamako to avoid imposing on a family member or friend who already had a house in the city. However, this frequently became impossible: as soon as the owner of the residence determined that the potential renter was a displaced person, he would often increase the rate of rent. Some speculate that the owners were “just” attempting to capitalize on the immediacy and desperateness of displacement. However, others insist that these owners may have purposefully made it more difficult, if not impossible, for northerners to rent due to the negative sentiments that so many southerners feel towards them.

An internal refugee from Gao recounted: “For the Bamaquois, all people from the north are terrorists. If you’re from the north, you’re guilty.” Most Malians imagine Mali as divided into “southern” and “northern” regions. Both regions are ethnically heterogeneous. However, the primary southern ethnic group is broadly conceptualized as Bambara, with the Bambara language serving as the lingua franca, as it were, of most of the south. In the north, the ethnic makeup is similarly divided between the Songhay, Tuareg (whose language is called “Tamasheq”), and Saharan Arab groups. However, as the Songhay are sedentary—as opposed to the other two northern groups, who are known for being nomadic (though some are now predominantly sedentary as well)—Songhay is the lingua franca of most of the north. As a result, most northerners do not speak much Bambara, so when they are in the south, they must often speak French. This creates tension because to many southerners Bambara is considered the national language, and French is identified as the language of non-Malians. The tension, however, is not only about language. Indeed, the tension often emerges from the various imaginaries associated with “northern” versus “southern” groups, and language is merely the tool through which one is identified with a particular region. Often, many southerners identify with the mythical founders of the Malian nation and see themselves as more developed. As such, many associate most northerners with “primitive” nomadism and/or religious fanaticism. Many northerners, however, evoke the region’s long history of Islam to claim their religious superiority to the supposedly more backward, even “animist,” southerners.

Most commonly, negative attitudes manifest in indirect hostility. That is, if the offending southerner detects a displaced individual’s Songhay, Tamasheq, or Arab accent, he might cross his arms, narrow her eyes, purse his lips, or otherwise alter her body language in a manner that broadcasts to the northerner that he is not welcome. However, there are also numerous cases of more direct harassment. Indeed, hostile body language is often accompanied by: “What are you doing in Bamako? This is not your city. Go back to the north.” Also, these direct encounters frequently involve calling the displaced northerner a “rebel,” “terrorist,” or “a member of al-Qaeda.” Such harassment intensifies, however, if an individual wears clothing typically associated with northern ethnic groups—especially the Tuareg— and/or if that person has a beard. (As with the clothing, a beard is associated with the rebel groups.)

One displaced Tuareg explained that he cannot wear a robe or a turban in public. If he does, he receives a barrage of nasty glances and taunts. However, as he is a musician, on the few occasions he has to perform, the band then asks him to change out of his western clothes. In other words, the clothes he prefers and would otherwise wear were it not for this discrimination have been converted into a costume. There have also been multiple accounts of young Bamako residents surrounding “traditionally dressed” displaced northerners, taunting them, kicking dirt on their robes, and even forcibly shaving their beards.

“The Bambara look at us—northerners—badly,” one displaced Timbuktian said. “They think that all the people from the north are involved in the rebellion. One Bambara man told me, ‘All Songhays are fuckers.’ That’s why I will never stay here [in Bamako] again, after this problem. They think we are all terrorists. But, we are the ones who are suffering by the terrorists. There’s no hope. This stigmatization is too much.”

Unfortunately, some of these north-south problems existed before March 2012.  Even before the occupation of the north, many Bambara individuals in Bamako and Mopti characterized most northerners as “backward,” “primitive,” and “religious fanatics.” And at that time, too, some Timbuktian individuals described most southerners as “not caring about the north” and “having a chip on their shoulder.”

Of course, most Malians do not harbor such negative biases. The displaced community is obligated to interact with Bambarans every day, and out of all of those interactions, one negative incident might occur only occasionally, not even once per day. And to be sure, this is not the first time that these northerners have interacted with southerners. Before the occupation, even in the north, individuals from throughout Mali regularly interacted positively. Bambara individuals and those of other ethnic groups would travel north for work, for domestic tourism, and for kinship obligations.

Nonetheless, these negative encounters do happen with enough frequency for many of the displaced individuals to express frustration, sadness, and resentment. Further, this more recent discrimination only seems to exacerbate some of the issues that already existed before the crisis began.

For years, the Office Radio Television (ORT) channel, Mali’s national television station, has been running regular commercials of images and videos that feature various regions of Mali and their unique “treasures.” Each advertisement concludes with, “Mali, My Homeland.” Significantly, many displaced individuals explain that since the beginning of the crisis, ORT has shown additional footage of the mosques and monuments of the northern regions (perhaps in an effort to preempt, counter, and/or soothe some of the rising tensions). In some ways, the negative reaction of the displaced northern community to this ad campaign is ironic:  instead of strengthening solidarity, intensifying Malian nationalism, or supporting the displaced community as intended, it mainly serves to remind them of the lack of solidarity many of them feel with most southerners, and of the feeling of being left behind and forgotten by the rest of the country, its administration, and military.

What will come of this? Can anyone expect national unity and solidarity when the northern-southern divide has potentially intensified over this past year? Has the conflict laid the foundations of a more embittered north—one that now includes more ethnic groups, not just the Tuareg members of MNLA? 

To these questions, most displaced northerners reply with a resounding, “No.” Indeed, despite ten months of crisis, many emphasize the inter-ethnic harmony that supposedly characterizes Mali. Furthermore, many stress that the occupation of northern Mali is not the fault of a single ethnic group, but instead that of a handful of fanatics. As one individual from the north stated, “Mali is a blessed country… We have many ethnic groups, but we try to be peaceful, diplomatic.” And another said, “Mali is the only African country where the different ethnicities sit together, talk together, eat together, take tea together.” Many echo what one northern Malian intellectual affirmed: After this crisis is over and the displaced individuals can go back home, all of the northerners will forget this abandonment and discrimination.

Yet, as this displaced community readies itself to return, many also articulate the same sentiment: “I don’t feel Malian [anymore].” During this period of displacement, many northern Malians have suffered a kind of double disenfranchisement, a double alienation. On the one hand, the Malian state, the apparatus supposedly designed to guarantee their security and wellbeing, has failed. On the other hand, the Malian nation, the people and ideal with whom all Malians supposedly “imagine” a kind of solidarity has also failed. As this community returns north to traumatized families and destroyed homes, as they tabulate the effects of what they articulate as “Mali’s abandonment,” what sorts of ethnic and national imaginaries will they create and promote? Will they correspond with the official imaginary that the nation-state is desperately trying to maintain? If “belonging” for these northerners stops corresponding with “Mali,” the Malian state (as well France and the international community) must reorient their own imaginaries. They must realize that this conflict is no longer—it never was in the first place—only about militant Islamists or territorial integrity. It is about cohesion and stability of an entirely more complicated sort.       

For further reading see:

Koné, Assane. Petit Chrono de la Crise Sécuritaire et Institutionnelle. Bamako: L’Harmattan, 2012

Lecocq, Baz. Disputed Desert: Decolonization, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali. Boston: Brill, 2010

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