How the war in Mali tore a village apart

Former friends and neighbours have turned against Tuaregs who have always lived peacefully, as ethnic and religious tensions come to a head. Alice Fordham reports from Siribala

SIRIBALA // The vibrant jewel colours of the Tuareg men's turbans glowed in the dim light of their mud house, and their silver rings flashed as they told a story of how war in Mali tore their village apart and turned their friends into enemies.

Here in the centre of the country, just south of the swath of territory taken over by Islamic extremists and Tuareg groups, long-standing ethnic, religious and military tensions heightened by a year of fighting have slowly come to a head.

Anger against Tuaregs - a tribal, lighter-skinned, ethnic minority in the diverse country - have long existed and increased during a series of uprisings in the 1990s.

But after last year's takeover of the north of the country, initially by Tuareg fighters who then fought alongside the Islamist extremists, hatred against them increased markedly among the military and the general population.

In the village of Siribala, one Tuareg family has lived alongside other Malian ethnicities for a generation, sharing meals with them, farming and walking to the market on Wednesdays.

But after rebels stormed the town of Diabaly, about 70 kilometres north, they found that their friends and neighbours had turned against them.

"All the people blame us. They say we are friends of the bad guys," said Ali Ag Noah, a slight man who looks to be in his 50s, wearing a deep indigo turban that has stained the collar of his white robe.

His family originated from Kidal, in the northern part of the country where Tuareg fighters were active.

"But we were born in this area," he said.

Many of his relatives - brothers, cousins and sons - live in the same neighbourhood, in large communal houses, and they clustered around to listen and interject as he told of how the threatening atmosphere suddenly erupted into deadly violence on January 18, a peaceful Friday afternoon.

It all started with his older cousin, a rich, successful teacher and religious man known as Abu Bacrine, who lived with his family in a house a few blocks away.

"People disliked him," said Mr Ag Noah. "Because he was someone who had wealth, people thought the bad guys were coming to meet him."

Mr Ag Noah had heard from the mayor of the town last year that his cousin, who travelled often to Kidal, was accused of meeting rebels - an idea that terrified him.

On that particular Friday, after he had visited his cousin after lunch and chatted with him about the family farmlands, he headed home for a nap.

As he was drifting off to sleep, a disturbance broke out in the streets.

"Rebels are in the city, rebels are in the city," cried crowds of people, including women and children. Rushing out to see what was happening, he was stopped by three soldiers who checked his ID, took him home and searched his house.

Another cousin, Sidi Ag Mohammed, took over telling the story.

He had been in Abu Bacrine's house as the crowds began to shout. At the same time, a pickup truck full of soldiers stopped outside.

Taking an eight-year-old nephew with him, Sidi Ag Mohammed climbed over a wall at the rear of the house and fled, hiding nearby to see what would happen.

Shots were fired, and another cousin, Samba Dicko, lay dead in the street.

Looters - who were once friends - poured into the house, stealing everything. The family was later told that Abu Bacrine had been taken away and shot dead.

The story was confirmed by a local official, who was not a Tuareg, who had been in the area at the time and helped bury the bodies.

Petrified, but with nowhere to go, the family hunkered down in their houses. They were told that friends and officials would make arrangements for the bodies to be buried but that they must not attend the ceremony, or they too would be killed.

They did not report the attack, said another cousin, because they believed the military was hunting Tuaregs.

Rights groups fear that similar incidents may be happening in other parts of the country.

The Tuareg are traditionally nomadic and most populous in the northern part of Mali, where they have been fighting for independence since at least 1958.

After security was weakened by a military coup in March last year, they overran the vast desert wastes, alongside Islamist fighters. They were later marginalised by the stronger radicals, and some have left the shaky alliance.

Past efforts to solve the problem of Tuareg separatism included appointing them to the government and recruiting them into the army.

But many defected when the rebellion began in the north, and Human Rights Watch has raised concerns that the defectors may have been killed by soldiers in the eastern city of Sevare.

Civilians too, could be carrying out vigilante violence. Human Rights Watch said in December that pro-government militias and ethnically allied youth groups had prepared lists of people to be targeted for reprisal once government control of the north was restored.

An EU training mission for Malian soldiers is set to focus on issues of accountability. But the divides between people with a profound sense of identity and dignity will not easily be bridged.

After the death of Abu Bacrine and the looting of his house, another of his cousins, Yahya Ag Mohammed, complained to the mayor, who suggested that he take his complaint to the prefect of the region.

But the mayor advised him against wearing his traditional turban on the journey, to avoid the risk of another attack.

He declined to make a journey that required him to do such a thing.

"This is a part of our culture," he said, indicating his ochre headdress. "You have to die with it. Once you put it on, you cannot take it off."