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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to