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Fearing a backlash, Tuareg community flees Bamako

The latest Tuareg rebellion and the declaration of independence of northern Mali by a Tuareg rebel group has increased the anxieties of Bamako's Tuareg community, prompting many of them to flee the country.


Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his jewelry store in the Malian capital of Bamako, dressed in the distinctive indigo garb associated with the Tuareg people, Mohammed Karbando freezes the moment he's asked about the situation in Mali.

Minutes earlier, the 55-year-old Tuareg silversmith was all smiles as he proudly displayed his handmade jewelry pieces. But now that the touchy question has been posed, the seconds tick uncomfortably by in his tiny, sweltering store before Karbando hazards a response.

Mohammed Karbando, silversmith in Bamako. (copyright: Leela Jacinto/ FRANCE24)
Mohammed Karbando, silversmith in Bamako. (copyright: Leela Jacinto/ FRANCE24)

“Really, I don't know much about the situation in Mali,” he says slowly, his kohl-rimmed eyes staring blankly ahead. “All I know is that I am afraid. Sometimes I want to leave, sometimes I want to stay, but always, I'm afraid. Every time I listen to this radio,” he gestures to a dusty contraption on the floor, “I hear 'Azawad, Azawad' -- it does not stop.”

Azawad is a contentious word in Bamako these days -- especially if you're Tuareg. For decades, it referred to the mythical Tuareg homeland that stretches across the border regions of present-day Mali, Niger and Algeria.

But following the April 6 declaration of independence by a Tuareg rebel group in an unholy alliance with various Islamist militant groups, Azawad now refers to the northern Mali region that fell from government control last month following a March 22 military coup.

It's also a term loosely used to refer to the Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad) -- a deeply unpopular organization in Bamako, where public anger against the independence declaration has been running high.

But as the rage against the northern self-declared secession mounts, Bamako's tiny Tuareg community has been declining.

“All the Tuareg have left -- civil servants, businessmen, students, musicians, artists... They've all gone,” says Mohamed Ag Ossad, director of TUMAST, a Bamako-based Tuareg cultural center, as he surveys the empty premises, where posters of now-canceled events are bleached by the unremitting sun.

Ossad estimates that before the recent crisis, Bamako was home to around 2,000 to 3,000 Tuaregs. Today, he estimates that there are only around 15 to 20 Tuaregs left in a city of 1.8 million inhabitants.

There are no official figures of the city's latest exodus in a country that has still to patch together an interim government following last week's agreement by the military junta to handover power to civilian control. The Tuaregs and other ethnic groups of North African Berber origins comprise about 10 per cent of Mali's total population of 14 million. Even in the north, the Tuaregs are a minority, making the Tuareg secessionist claim in the north difficult to digest for Mali's other ethnic groups.

A mosaic of muti-ethnic groups

A vast, multi-ethnic West African nation, Mali is home to a variety of ethnic groups, including the Bambara, Malinke, Soninke, Peul and Songhai, to name but a few. The often bewildering mosaic of diverse ethnic groups has largely spared Mali the sort of ethnic violence that has wrecked a few other African nations with populations more evenly split between major tribes and ethnic groups.

Since its independence from France in 1960, Mali has experienced several Tuareg rebellions, as well as several peace accords that have led to measures intended to assimilate Tuaregs into the modern Malian economy -- although poverty, heath issues and a lack of the education necessary to produce marketable skills are problems that continue to confront the Tuaregs in the underdeveloped north.

But over the past three decades, Ossad says the community has made several strides forward, with Tuaregs entering the ranks of civil servants and professionals.

“The Tuareg think they have been ill-treated,” said Ossad. “But if you look at any institution, any ministry, there's not a single ministry where there isn't a Tuareg.”

Not too many of them though are left in Bamako these days, as the Tuareg community in the city, fearing a backlash, have fled for neighbouring countries.

Two waves of flight

According to Ossad, the Tuareg exodus from Bamako started in February after a Tuareg-owned pharmacy and homes -- including that of Mali's former minister of tourism and arts, Zakiatou Walet Halatine -- were attacked during a demonstration in Kati on the outskirts of Bamako.

This attack was the latest in a series of protest movements targeting Tuaregs, Arabs and Mauritanians because of their lighter skin color.

The northern Malian uprising in January,  after Tuareg fighters in Libya returned home following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, seems to have triggered the initial tensions.

The security forces’ failure to act resulted in thousands of Tuaregs and others fleeing Bamako, with many seeking refuge in neighbouring Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, according to Amnesty International.

According to Ossad, the situation calmed in the following few weeks and some Tuareg started returning home.

Mohamed Ag Ossad, Tuareg cultural center director in Bamako. (Copyright: Leela Jacinto/FRANCE 24)
Mohamed Ag Ossad, Tuareg cultural center director in Bamako. (Copyright: Leela Jacinto/FRANCE 24)

“The men came back to resume their work -- we're talking about civil servants and professionals who have jobs in Bamako -- leaving their wives and children behind with their relatives outside Mali,” explained Ossad. “But after the [March 22] coup, there was a second wave of departures and that's when everyone started leaving. Now they aren't about to return -- right now, I don't know of anyone who's coming back.”

A Tuareg married to an ethnic Bambara (the majority ethnic group in Mali), Ossad admits that he considered sending his children to their grandmother's in Burkina Faso. But when a transition power handover deal was signed last week, he decided against it.

“Me, I am not afraid,” he insists. “Bamako is my city. Mali is my country. I never asked for independence. (...) I really don't understand the goal of this separation of the north. I don't understand what these people [the rebels] are thinking -- in fact, they're not thinking, that's the problem.”

Ossad doesn't regret his decision to stay on in Bamako.

“Look around,” Ossad says, his eyes sweeping around the cool, welcoming cultural center premises. “Do you see any trouble? Here I am, everyone knows I'm here and no one has bothered me. I don't believe in violence. I am a man of culture, I support Tuareg culture and everyone knows culture is non-violent.”


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