29 Jan 2013

Mali: after the fire, now the reckoning

Three stray goats were wandering through the ruins of the Gao branch of the Development Bank of Mali as we filmed it today.

Last April, when they seized power, then men of Mujao, the Movement for Jijad and Unity, broke into the bank and spent five days trying to open the safe with explosives.

Eventually they managed to blast a hole in the side and get in to steal all the money. Then they blew up the entire building.

An old man I met outside just shook his head. “I don’t know how people can do these things,” he said. “I just don’t get it.”

All over Gao, I can see the wreckage left by the jihadis. But the damage which will be hardest to repair is in people’s heads.

Today a young man showed me footage he had shot of a crowd tearing limb from limb a jihadi who shot at them on Saturday, just as Malian soldiers entered the town. The video is too gruesome to describe, let alone to air.

One of my colleagues from Associated Press this morning shot video of a vigilante group beating up a man who, they said, was a jihadi. The army had to rescue him.

These people who they say are jihadis may be collaborators – or maybe they’re just lighter-skinned Malians, Tuaregs or Arabs, who are now seen by many as fair game.

Last January the troubles in Mali erupted when Tuaregs who had come back from Libya, having fought for Colonel Gaddafi and were carrying heavy weapons, started an uprising for independence.

Many Tuareg officers in the Mali army deserted and switched sides. Black Malian officers I have spoken to cannot forgive their former Tuareg colleagues. To them this was treason – the Tuaregs had been part of the Malian army and now they were rebelling against the state.

The final straw was when a group, believed to be jihadis possibly linked to the Tuareg separatists, slit the throats of 82 Malian soldiers on 24 January 2012 in a place called Aguelhok.

Like any visiting liberal westerner, I say things like “But surely revenge is not the answer?” And they look at me like some idiot who has no understanding of what they’ve been through.

The people in town, similarly, describe nine months of nightmare, of beatings, amputations and other acts of unspeakable cruelty carried out by a largely foreign force of jihadis, invited in, as they see it, by local Arabs and Tuaregs.

I have heard of collaborators who were from black Malian ethnic groups as well. But this is a racially divided society and everything that’s happened in the last year makes it more so.

The scenes of joy and excitement as the French and Malians drove into town showed the majority of people in Gao utterly rejected jihadi rule.

But now comes the reckoning – and the danger is that those Malian troops and ordinary people will take revenge, and the divisions and mistrust in Malian society will grow wider and more entrenched.

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