Nancy Palus | Dakar, Senegal
This young man from Timbuktu says his relatives remain in the region, refusing to leave for the groups currently occupying northern Mali, April 23, 2012. "They'll stay even if they must die," he said.
Nearly one month after northern Mali fell to Tuareg rebels and Islamic groups, youth activists say the country's failure to act combined with a push by the armed groups to win people's
favor is creating a dangerous and irreversible situation. They say beyond the physical division of Mali, the continued occupation threatens to permanently divide a people.
Members of a new youth coalition say unless the Malian state takes concrete steps immediately to show people in the north that they have not been forgotten, the fallout from the occupation will be dangerous and long-lasting.
Feelings of abandonment
It’s just short of a month since Tuareg rebels and allied Islamic groups took over Mali’s three northern regions - Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. While political leaders and the military junta
have said that no job is more urgent than resolving the situation in the north, this resident of Timbuktu said even if leaders are working on the problem behind the scenes, the people are seeing
no concrete signs, so they are left to conclude that they have been abandoned.
The same resident of Timbuktu said that almost one month after the rebels took over, nothing has changed, nothing has improved. The state has abandoned us, he said.
Malians in Bamako said they worry about reports from relatives in the north that the Tuareg rebels and militant Islamic groups are recruiting local youth.
The man in Timbuktu said most youths are joining not for any ideological reasons, but simply because people are afraid and - seeing no signs from the government - are resigned to the fact that they must co-exist and get along with these groups who are in control.
The regional bloc ECOWAS on Thursday said it would send troops to Mali, as part of efforts to help the country restore its territorial integrity. But it is not clear what the troops’ role might be in retaking the north.
“Ras” Bathily is member of the new coalition of young artists and other professionals formed the day after Mali’s coup d’état on March 22. He said people in the north are extremely vulnerable to manipulation by the occupying groups - one more reason the state’s absence is increasingly dangerous.
Inaction exacerbates problems
He said someone with an empty stomach cannot analyze the situation. In the current conditions, he said, people can’t resist the manipulation being perpetrated by the occupiers.
Ansar Dine, the Islamist Tuareg group seeking to impose a strict interpretation of Sharia law in Mali, is reportedly helping people recover looted items and claiming to protect the population against abuses by other armed groups.
Mahamadou Diouara also is a member of the youth coalition. He said Ansar Dine is playing the role of savior, and as it stands it has all the time in the world to implant its philosophy among the population. He said the longer Mali waits to recover these regions, the more difficult it will be - and Malians risk fighting their own brothers and sisters, who are now being pulled to the side of these armed groups.
International Crisis Group, in a recent report, said Mali’s and Africa’s response to the armed conquest of the north “must be as sophisticated and multifaceted as the various factors underlying the conflict, especially given the complicating presence of heavily armed Islamist groups whose objectives are uncertain but worrying."
The youth group member Bathily said the status quo fuels social and cultural divisions, threatening the very existence of the Malian nation.
He said the most dramatic consequence of the occupation of northern Mali is not the physical division of Mali - rather it’s the complete breakdown of bonds and fraternity as Malians. He also said that once people in the north conclude that Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine are more concerned about their welfare than the Malian state, then even if the land is recovered, the hearts and minds of those in the north shall not be.