Malian soldier beats man for 'having a beard'
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As French-led forces retake cities in northern Mali from Islamist rebels, some residents have allegedly faced reprisals by Malian soldiers. FRANCE 24 reports on the fate of one man who was beaten publicly in Diabaly for having a beard.
special correspondent in Mali
His white beard turned red as the soldier’s belt repeatedly lashed his head. Dressed in a long khaki-coloured tunic, traditional among the shepherds of northern Mali, the barefoot and terrified man tried to run away from his persecutor, but to no avail. Finally, other soldiers stepped in and convinced him to stop beating the elderly man.
Foreign reporters covering the Mali operation watched the violent scene play out in shock and horror. “No photos! Get away!” an army captain shouted, forcing the journalists to back away.
The scene unfolded last week in Diabaly, a city in central Mali that was reclaimed by French and Malian troops on January 21. The war against Islamist rebels has since moved north. A few days after the incident, FRANCE 24 returned to Diabaly to find the elderly victim.
His story belongs to an apparently growing list of ethnic reprisals on those suspected of having collaborated with the Salafist fighters that overran northern Mali last year, a situation that has cast a shadow over the much-hailed joint French-African effort to rout al Qaeda in the troubled country.
Guilty of having a beard
Sitting on his porch, Aldjoumati Traoré appeared to take quiet pride in surviving the soldier’s attack. A dozen pink bandages concealed the wounds around his head, but Traoré displayed them as if they were badges of honour. “It is God who saved me,” he said recalling the incident.
“I had just left a friend’s house and was walking on the main road when a soldier asked me for identification. But when I showed my papers he lunged at me. He said that I was a terrorist and he was going to kill me,” he added.
After snatching the 70-year-old cattle herder’s walking stick, the soldier began the brutal assault.
“He thought I was a rebel Islamist because my skin is a little lighter than average and because of my beard,” Traoré explained while running his fingers through his goatee – the modest facial hair he decided to keep after the assault. “The soldier was clearly not from around here. I have been living in Diabaly for 40 years, everyone knows me.”
While Traoré thanked heaven for surviving the beating, his family said he owed his life to his courageous son-in-law, Salifou Bouare. In Diabaly, Bouare is known as the local wedding photographer. He happened to be nearby that day, camera in hand, when he heard his father-in-law’s cries for help.
“When I got there the situation was very tense. The soldier was yelling and threatening a white journalist that had told him to stop. I approached the soldier and said, ‘boss, please, he’s my father-in-law’,” Bouare remembered.
The soldier noticed his camera and moved quickly to confiscate it. “That’s when my father-in-law made a run for the barracks, where other soldiers calmed him down,” Bouare said. “I am sure that if he had a gun he would have used it on my stepfather. [The soldier] reeked of alcohol.”
A worrying reality
An angry crowd quickly surrounded the military barracks. Realising the potential danger of the situation, the soldiers released the wounded man.
Traoré was rushed to a nearby mud-hut clinic, where male nurse Mady Dembele, attended to his cuts and bruises. “Despite his condition, he quickly regained his senses. It was the old man himself who begged the crowd to remain calm when some people began calling for vengeance,” Dembele recalled.
Anger was finally abated when a ranking military official and the mayor of Diabaly visited Traoré at the clinic to apologise. The elderly herdsman accepted their apologies, conceding that the attacker was not from the region and acted independently.
As the French-led military campaign blazes north across the vast territory and toward areas where the Malian army suffered humiliating defeats last year, the threat of ethnic reprisals, like the one in Diabaly and elsewhere, worries many observers.