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Once a stopover, Mali town becomes frontline destination for displaced people

The town of Sévaré sits along Mali's de facto border with a region now controlled by Tuareg separatists. At a camp there, displaced people speak cautiously about why they fled.

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A male elder named Doumbe from the southeastern quarter of Timbuktu region was appointed as the camp’s semi-official spokesman. Seated on a deep red carpet with a fan fluttering overhead, Doumbe explained that he left his village near the frontier with Gao region in part because he had the means to. He painted a scene of misery for those left behind, destitute and with little or no food left in the village stores. The minder would not let Doumbe speak to this reporter without supervision, and when this reporter attempted an unapproved interview with another male IDP, the very limited tour of the wind-blown facility was brought to an end.

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In a red dirt courtyard, the Monitor met with a group of Songhai-speaking men who say they left Timbuktu in fear of their lives. 

Idrissa had been a proprietor of a modest neighborhood shop in Timbuktu until he finally heeded his family’s pleas in early May to join them further south and made off for Sévaré. Now an IDP bereft of income, he receives ration cards from USAID and Catholic Relief Services

Retelling the story of his journey south, Idrissa said that as he crossed through a checkpoint run by the Salafi-Islamist group Ansar Eddine, one of the men questioned Idrissa’s reasons for leaving the territory the group "liberated" from the Malian government along with the MNLA. A turbaned fighter told him: “[Azawad] is your country. There is no need to leave.” 

Clearly Idrissa disagreed. He described the tug of war in the early weeks of the rebellion between the ethno-nationalist Tuareg MNLA and Ansar Eddine, which claims its goal is to enforce Islamic stricture. “The MNLA was looting vehicles coming in and out of the city until they were intimidated by Ansar Eddine to stop," he said. Ansar Eddine eventually gained the upper hand and took control of the main towns in Azawad, leaving the MNLA to control the peripheries of the self-declared state. 

Ansar Eddine tried to market itself as a “protective force” that would, in theory, defend Timbuktu from a possible reconquest by the Malian government forces, competing rebels, and bandits. 

Another man, Moussa, had been a tour guide in Timbuktu before tourism evaporated in the wake of a brazen kidnapping of a group of Western travelers from a popular cafe in November. One of the tourists, a German, was killed after resisting. Moussa lived off his savings for another month before heading south. Now he, like Idrissa, is in Sévaré, reliant on ration cards and unsure of what the next day will bring.

Although he was pushed out of his home by bearded men claiming to be the new stewards of orthodox Sunni Islam in Azawad, Moussa is a devout Muslim. For him, the Tuaregs' ethnic and nationalist agenda was the bigger issue. As a Songhai, who actually far outnumber the Tuareg in the three northern regions, he doesn't speak Tamasheq, the indigenous tongue of Mali’s Tuareg warrior-nomads.

“Really, language is the biggest difficulty. I don’t feel safe to go back there [Timbuktu] as a Songhai [speaker]," Moussa said, slouching in his chair as the sun dipped below the communal compound’s chestnut-colored walls. At the conclusion of the interview, Moussa cleaned the red soil off his feet and prostrated on a blue straw mat as the evening call to prayer resounded through the squat, mud brick city.

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