Africa's 'Blue Men' Flee Desert

Conflict with the Malian Army has caused many rebellious Tuareg nomads to leave their homes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A COUPLE of miles outside this ancient African town, Ibrahim Malale lies on the ground, protected from the sand-blast wind by only a short, reed mat and a worn blanket.

Ibrahim is one of the victims of a little-understood desert rebellion, under way for nearly two years in the vast Sahara, between the traditionally nomadic Tuaregs and the Malian Army.

Tuaregs claim that the Army has randomly killed many of their animals, stolen their young girls to become unwilling brides, and killed many Tuareg civilians in Mali's northern desert region.

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The Malian government claims that the Tuaregs are foreign-trained. A Western diplomat in Bamako, the Malian capital, says they are Libyan-trained bandits, who steal four-wheel-drive vehicles and kill soldiers and civilians.

Both sides agree that Tuaregs have never gotten their share of development aid in Mali, even in times of severe drought. And in the latest of periodic negotiations, held on Jan. 22 in the Algerian capital of Algiers, both sides agreed to a cease-fire as of Feb. 8.

Tuaregs are the famed "hommes bleus," or "blue men," desert nomads nicknamed after their dark-blue turbans. The color eventually rubs off onto their tan skin.

In the 15th century, the Tuaregs attacked Timbuktu and have ruled it several times since then. They are - or were - kings and queens of the Sahara, roaming freely, long after colonial powers drew lines in the sand in the 19th century, defining Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and Mali as Tuareg country.

Today's Tuaregs are survivors. No one knows how many thousands of them starved in the severe droughts of the early 1970s and mid-'80s, which also decimated their herds of camels and other livestock. Governments in the area estimate that 1 million Tuaregs are left in Africa today. Tuareg rebel leaders claim that they number 2 million.

One thing is clear: In the last couple of years, tens of thousands of Tuaregs have fled Mali as a result of their conflict with the Malian Army.

According to Western relief officials, many now lack food and medicine in temporary camps along the Malian, Mauritanian, and Algerian borders. Some children have died in at least one of the camps, says Monique Lherm, a non-Tuareg living in Paris who has done development work with Tuaregs in Niger and Mali.

After a local security force attacked and killed a leading Tuareg resident of Timbuktu in December 1991 following a Tuareg attack on the town, most Tuareg residents fled to the desert.

Ibrahim and many Tuaregs living on the dunes around Timbuktu also ran away. Ibrahim, his wife, and their six-year-old son, Mohammed, went to a village several miles from here. When they returned in January, they discovered that grazing donkeys had eaten the reed mats covering their traditional home.

"If there's peace, we'll stay," says Ibrahim. As soon as he recovers from an illness, he says, he will rebuild his home. Meanwhile, though too weak to stand, he apologizes for not having any tea to offer his guests.

Scattered around the area are other dome-like homes of Tuaregs who had not run away or who had drifted back since the December attack. In one of them, a Tuareg who prefers not to give his name, talks about his people.

"The people of Timbuktu say all Tuaregs are rebels. But it's not true. We're not happy they [the rebels] continue like that. People are suffering," he says.

A Tuareg merchant normally working in Timbuktu, whom this reporter met in Bamako and who did not want to give his name, says antirebel Tuaregs like himself are in danger from three directions. "We're between the rebels, the government [as suspected rebels], and the Songhay," a black Malian tribe living on the southern edges of Tuareg territory who also views Tuaregs as rebels.

A policeman in Timbuktu calls Tuaregs "animals, murderers. The only solution is to kill them," he says. Another resident says even nonrebel Tuaregs are spies for the rebels and calls them all "bandits." But recent attacks on Timbuktu do not bear the mark of bandits.

The governor's house, an unlikely target by bandits, was attacked in December. The governor was not hurt. And on Nov. 12, American Baptist missionaries Richard and Anna Marshall were robbed in their home a few miles outside Timbuktu by what Malian security officials say were Tuareg rebels.

In the past two years, there have been numerous deaths from the conflict, according to both government and rebel spokesmen, though neither side offers estimates of how many.

The Western diplomat in Bamako says the current rebellion (an earlier one occurred in the '60s) stems from the Libyan-trained Tuaregs coming home in mid-1990 after fighting wound down in Lebanon and the Spanish Sahara.

This diplomat says the conflict could last a long time because rebel factions disagree on peace terms and, even within the factions, the ideas of the younger and older generations differ.

The rebels are demanding the following: a federal state to allow them control of most of their activities; demilitarization of north Mali to eliminate conflict with the Army; and more economic aid.

Malian military head of state Lt. Col. Ahmadou Toumani Toure told the Monitor that he is willing to grant the rebels "autonomy or decentralized" powers, not a federal state. Once the area is safe, he says police will be able to handle "internal management" of the Tuareg region, and he promises more economic aid for the north.

Malian negotiator Col. Brehima Sire Traore, in a separate interview, did not rule out the possibility that Mali's scheduled transition from a military head of state to a civilian president, due to be elected by early March, could be delayed beyond the promised date of March 26 if the rebellion continues longer than that.

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