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Demonsration in Bamako Fotograf: Katrin Gänsler
Image: Katrin Gänsler

Malian militias train for war

Katrin Gänsler / mc
December 20, 2012

More and more Malians are calling for a military intervention to liberate the north of their country from Islamist rule. They are also preparing to fight themselves.


Saturday morning in Sevare, a town in central Mali. On a dusty square, 50 young people are practising marching drill. Their steps are supposed to sound firm, resolute, disciplined, which is not very easy because most of the young recruits are wearing flip-flops. Equipment may be in short supply, but not the willingness to fight. Rokiatau Coulibaly said "I'm here to re-conquer the north. It's our country and the north belongs to it." The 24-year-old mother of two children has joined the Liberation Forces of the Northern Regions (FLN). It is one of several militia in Mopti and Sevare that has been preparing civilians for battle for several months.

FLN militia training Fotograf: Katrin Gänsler
Young Malians being trained by the FLN militia which hopes to retake northern MaliImage: Katrin Gänsler

Both towns are now in the front line. Islamist territory lies just 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the north. The FLN has recruited more than 1,000 new members in order to retake it. After months of marching, they are now going to be taught to use weapons. Their instructor Moussa Traore served with the Malian army for 12 years. He says he still has contacts to the military. "If I need 30 rifles, I can simply apply for them," he explains.

Dialogue or battle

More and more people in Mali evidently believe that force will be needed to retake the north. In the capital Bamako there are regular demonstrations calling for the liberation of the territory, which has been annexed by the Islamist militants of Ansar Dine who wish to erect a strict Islamist state in which sharia law is enforced.

A far bigger danger is posed by two terrorist organizations, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its offshoot, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa known as Mujaoa. Both have built bases in Mali and are believed to have brought numerous fighters into the countries from abroad and be involved in drugs trafficking.

Rokiattau Coulibaly believes the threat comes from a different quarter, the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, also known as the MNLA. At the beginning of the year, it defeated the Malian army, declaring northern Mali as the new independent state of Azawad. Most of the territory they seized has has been taken over by Ansar Dine in the meantime, but Malians often say that it was the MNLA that unleashed the whole sorry business. For instructors such as Moussa Traore, it is therefore the separatists who should be fought first.

FLN militia volunteer Fotograf: Katrin Gänsler
Rokiatau Coulibaly wants to be part of the reconquest of northern MaliImage: Katrin Gänsler

He believes there should be no dialogue with them, as some political groups in Bamako would prefer. "The dialogue wouldn't last long. And even if it were to come about, would the MNLA then be integrated into the government or the army? That is something we would never accept," he said.

Not every Tuareg supports the MNLA

Initially the MNLA was the armed wing of the Tuareg, calling for more rights and autonomy for the nomadic people. But it no longer has the support of all Tuaregs. Azima Mohammed Ag Ali is a Tuareg and a father of three children who left Timbuktu because it was too dangerous and moved to Bamako a few weeks ago. He doesn't just blame the MNLA but AQIM as well. "That group is a threat not just for Africa, but for the whole of the world," he says. He fails to understand why the international community is so reluctant to intervene. "if the European Union wants to help Mali, then the time is now," he said.

Demonstration in Bamako Fotograf: Katrin Gänsler
Frequent protests in Bamako call for a quick solution to the conflict in the northImage: Katrin Gänsler

But the arrival of an intervention force in the immediate future now seems unlikely. Last week, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who led the coup on March 22nd that ousted Mali's democratically elected government, replaced the prime minister. Many Malians believe that the new prime minister, Diango Cissoko, is not necessarily a worse choice than his predecessor Cheick Modibo Diarra. But the change has worsened Mali's reputation, reminding the international community how instable the country is.

In Sevare, Rokiatau Coulibaly is therefore preparing for war. "I have gone through the training. Now I can show how much I love my country."

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