25 Jan 2013

A child soldier with Mali’s mujaheddin – or a lost boy without work?

He was a thin, bewildered kid in a filthy yellow-beige tunic and loose trousers. Someone had given him a heavy khaki military jacket with a fake sheepskin collar which came down below his knees.

As the policeman brought him out to meet journalists, I saw a flicker of fear pass across his delicate features. He was 16, he said. And he wasn’t a fighter, just a lost boy looking for a job who had ended up working as a cook for the jihadis.

Adama Drabo’s story gives an insight into the jihadis who are fighting the French and the nature of poverty and deprivation in Mali. Captured by Malian soldiers a few days ago, he is being held in a police station in the central town of Sevare, which is where I met him.

He told his story to a group of journalists without hesitating, and I got no sense that he had been coerced. If he is 16, as he said, he does not technically qualify as a “child soldier”, but that makes him no less vulnerable.

The son of farmers in Niono, south-west of Sevare, he said he had only two years of koranic school as education. A month ago, he and a friend decided to look for work and ended up in Douentza, north of Sevare.

“We ended up in a big garden where the mujaheddin were,” he said. “We told them that we were looking for a job. They said that before becoming fighters like them we had to be their cooks and we would be paid at the end of each month.”

That sounded good to Adama and his friend, so they collected their baggage from the bus station and went to the mujaheddin camp. Little did he know that the Movement for Jihad and Unity, MUJAO, was about to be bombed by French aircraft and he was to play a tiny role in the latest phase of the “war on terror”.

He was given clothes and shoes. The mujaheddin, as he called them, went out to fight and he and two other boys cooked. Many of the mujaheddin were Tuareg, the nomadic people Malians often call “peaux rouge” or “red-skins” because of their lighter complexion. “We three cooks were the only blacks,” he said.

After a few days he began to realise that something was going on.

“After cooking, we were authorised to get out of the camp and a young boy in front told us that the other mujaheddins went to fight Malian troops,” he said. “I told my friend that because most of them left to fight, there was no reason for us to stay as they won’t be there to pay us.”

It’s that last detail which makes me believe Adama’s story. All he wanted was to be paid – he was poor and devout and could see nothing wrong in cooking for the holy warriors.

“When I stayed in the training camp, I’ve heard them saying that their only goal was to fight the Malian troops until the end,” he said. “But as soon they were struggling in battle, they disappeared. That’s when I realised how dangerous it was for me to stay.”

Wandering along the road, he ran into a Malian army patrol. The soldiers arrested him and took him to the gendarmerie for questioning.

Adama will probably survive, unlike Tuaregs and Arabs accused of being jihadis who have been arrested and allegedly murdered by Malian soldiers. The fact that the police let us see him suggests that they don’t mean to harm him.

As we left, I called the International Committee of the Red Cross. “He’s not technically a child soldier,” I said. “But he needs your help.” They said they would go immediately to see how they could help.

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