Mali's separatist Tuaregs cling to dream

Caught between a distant government in Bamako and an Islamist rebel movement in their home region, Mali's minority Tuaregs face an uncertain future. 

"I never supported them, but many of my friends did," says Aljimit. It is early afternoon, and we are taking refuge in a straw hut from heat that reaches 110 degrees F.

Aljimit is a light-skinned ethnic Tuareg, and he is talking about the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a local separatist rebel group led by Tuaregs. Last year, the MNLA briefly gained control of parts of northern Mali. Its aims have been a Tuareg homeland and territory, not jihad, like the groups that came later.

We are sitting in Gao, the largest urban area in northern Mali – although in the aftermath of a war that brought French troops and airstrikes, the streets in Aljimit's neighborhood are lifeless.

"They are all gone," he whispers under a typical indigo turban fabric that covers most of his face. "I don't think they will ever be back," he says of the many Tuaregs and Arabs who used to populate this area.

As we eat dates and drink small, sugary cups of mint tea – a beverage that Tuaregs prepare with a devotion that borders on religious ritual – Aljimit recounts the rise and fall of Tuareg nationalism that was personified here by the MNLA.

Last year when the MNLA rebels declared the independent state of Azawad, it was Gao they chose as their capital.

Shortly after, the MNLA were driven out by the Islamist rebels, once their allies of convenience. Much of the local population, most of whom are not Tuareg and wished to stay Malian, welcomed the MNLA's demise. Aljimit says that is when many Tuaregs of all stripes and views started to flee, fearing reprisal.

As a nomadic people strewn across vast stretches of northern Mali's Sahara, the Tuareg have long felt marginalized by a government based far away, in the southern capital in Bamako.

The most recent Tuareg rebellion is only the latest of several that stretch back to the 1960s, when Mali gained independence from France.

As an artisan, Aljimit has seen his livelihood all but disappear with the collapse of tourism. A former rebel in his own right, Aljimit says he also felt alienated by the government in Bamako. He can easily understand those who joined the MNLA.

"If I were young, maybe I would have joined the rebellion," he says, "but I'm old enough to know that war never builds anything."

Our encounter just off the deserted street has a somber tone, as if we are in remembrance of something. Fittingly, we are listening to Takamba, a genre of music from Gao itself. The sound is a blend of musical traditions from several ethnic groups that once called the city home.

Aljimit puts down his glass, closes his eyes, and as locals are known to do to the sound of Takamba, loosely swings his arms. It seems a moment of memory, bliss, and sadness.

"For this, I would go to war," he says.

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