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Mali's crisis

May 10, 2012

Tuareg soldiers from Mali fought for Moammar Gadhafi in Libya until his regime fell in 2011. Returning to Mali, they rejoined a long-standing rebellion against the government. Now, Malians blame their crisis on Libya.

Civilians walk past burning tires lit in support of mutinying soldiers, in Bamako, Mali Wednesday March 21, 2012. Gunshots could still be heard in the Malian capital late Wednesday, hours after angry troops started a mutiny at a military base near the presidential palace. Soldiers stormed the offices of the state broadcaster, yanking both TV and radio off the air.(Foto:Harouna Traore/AP/dapd)
Mali Aufruhr PutschImage: AP

Damba Koné pointed to the only valuable thing he managed to bring from Libya last Spring. A massive refrigerator was standing in the alley near his home in Mali's capital Bamako.

For 11 years, Koné was a butcher in Gatrun, a village in southern Libya. According to him, there were only 4 butchers in town. All of them came from Mali.

As the Libyan conflict escalated in early April 2011, Koné sent his wife and four children to Mali by way of Tunisia. Koné stayed behind to pack up their possessions.

Then one night, he lost all of his life savings. Seven armed men broke into his house. They stuck a knife into his arm and made him give up the $15,000 (11,500 euros) he had hidden under his roof.

He crossed over to Niger on a pickup truck a few days later.

When Koné finally arrived in Bamako, he had nothing left but his seven-foot long industrial fridge.

In April of last year, 7 armed men broke into Damba's house in Southern Libya and assaulted him. They made him give up the $15,000 he had hidden under his roof. His whole life savings gone, this industrial fridge is the only valuable thing Damba brought out of the country. Mali, Libyen, Tourag, Rebellen, Zivilisten überleben
Armed men broke into Damba's house in southern Libya and left behind only his fridgeImage: DW

One year later, Koné is still empty-handed. He hasn't found a job because, according to him, Bamako already has too many butchers. He can't even afford to buy meat for his own children

Officials say about 12,000 Malian migrant workers fled Libya last year, but the numbers are likely much higher.

People like Koné, who left Libya without help from embassies or international organizations, were not registered as returnees.

Malian anger

Oumar Sidibé works with a migrants' advocacy group in Bamako. His statistics show that as many as 30,000 Malians returned from Libya in 2011.

Sidibé attributes the number of Malians in Libya to higher paying jobs. Every region, every ethnic group had sent some of their own to work there, according to Sidibé.

Haruna Traoré worked for a number of Western families in Tripoli. For 10 years, he cleaned their houses, looked after their children, tended their gardens - and rarely lost his smile.

He proudly shows off a certificate from past employers praising his "honesty and cheerfulness."

Now back in Bamako, Traoré struggles to rent an apartment for his family, let alone pay his nine-month-old heart condition.

Like many other migrants who came back from Libya, he's angry at the Malian government for doing nothing to help the returnees.

Haruna Traoré standing next to the few things he brought with him from Libya (his son's Mickey doll, some cooking utensils...) He lives in this apartment alone because there's no running water and electricity. His wife and children live with his relatives a few blocks away, in an overcrowded one-story house.
Haruna Traoré standing next to the few things he brought with him from LibyaImage: DW

His last job came with a guest house for his family of five and paid $700 a month.

Traoré wired his relatives as much as $300, or about five times the average monthly wage in Mali.

The very relatives that Traoré assisted with his income in Libya must now support him and his family. His uncle and grandmother only earn a combined $60 a month from their retirement pensions.

Needing so much help embarrasses him. "I never imagine one day I can be in this situation," he told DW.

Traoré's situation makes him angry. But he's even more furious at Mali's authorities for giving a warmer welcome to those who fought for Moammar Gadhafi's regime, a small, distinctive group of returnees.

Cash for Tuaregs

General Mohamed Ali introduces himself as a "true general." He served under Colonel Moammar Gadhafi for over four decades, earning him the highest military rank and a Libyan passport.

Ali is a Tuareg from Timbuktu who left Mali for Libya in the 1960's. He fought in all of Gadhafi's African wars in Chad, Sudan, and Angola, each time receiving a seven figure bonus for his military skills.

Over the following decades, thousands of Malian Tuaregs found refuge, and a warm welcome in Libya where Moammar Gadhafi portrayed himself as a champion of the Tuaregs' cause.

Ali fought for Gadhafi during all the key battles in last year's uprising. When the regime finally collapsed in the fall, Ali and his Tuareg battalion returned to Mali.

Speaking from Timbuktu through a translator over the phone, General Ali said Malian authorities sent four ministers to greet him and his group with cash. "The people of Kidal who brought weapons received more [cash than I did]," he told DW.

An estimated 2,000 Tuaregs came back to Mali after Gadhafi's fall. Some of them carried light and heavy artillery with them.

Tuareg fighters moving through northern Mali in fall 2011.
Tuareg fighters moving through northern MaliImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Malian authorities feared the returning Tuareg fighters would revive a long-standing on-and-off rebellion in North Mali. The first major Tuareg rebellion broke out shortly after Mali gained independence in 1960.

The government lavished tens of thousands of dollars on them to prevent them from rebelling again.

Amadou Waigalo works on migrants' affairs at the Ministry of Malians Abroad. "Everyone knew about it," he said. "The Malian workers who were in Libya for economic reasons protested because they got nothing and they thought that was unfair. But the financial help the Tuaregs received was political."

Tuaregs target government

The money didn't prevent the Tuaregs from fighting. Many of them joined the Azawad National Liberation Movement - known by its French acronym MNLA - and Islamist groups in the fight against the Malian government.

Tuaregs attacked a military base in North Mali mid-January 2012 and then gradually began taking control of towns, including Timbuktu.

The breakaway prompted a humanitarian crisis with over 200,000 people forced to flee, and a coup d'état on March 22.

Mali's junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo led the coup d'etat in late March.
Mali's junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo led the coup d'etat in late MarchImage: dapd

By early April, they had taken control of all of Northern Mali's main towns and declared the independence of the Azawad State.

General Ali, who's part of the Azawad Liberation Movement, thinks the declaration of independence was long overdue.

"Don't they have the right to independence? What did South Sudan get? They are the ones who died since 1957, they're fighting and they are people who died for freedom, for independence," he said through a translator.

Libyan links

Most people in Mali agree that the regime change in Libya directly led to the current turmoil in Mali. The influx of armed Tuareg fighters from Libya helped the long-standing simmering rebellion finally achieved its goal.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has also pointed out the link between Mali's crisis and the conflict in Libya last year.

Some call it collateral damage. Others blame NATO for failing to anticipate how disruptive the collapse of Gadhafi's four-decade rule would be for the Sahel region.

Oumar Sidibé, the advocate for Malian migrants, thinks the international community wanted Gadhafi out at all costs, even if his fall brought chaos to the whole region.

He points out that many Africans, including the African Union, raised concerns about NATO's intervention in Libya.

Power struggle

Mali is currently split into two entities with no diplomatic or military solution in sight. A military coup ousted the government in Bamako in March. The newly appointed Interim President is struggling to transfer power back to civilian rule.

Interim President Dioncounda Traoré was sworn in on April 12.
Interim President Dioncounda Traoré was sworn in on April 12.Image: Reuters

Last week in Bamako, a group of soldiers who've remained loyal to the deposed president staged a "counter-coup." The attempt failed, but killed at least 14 people and plunged the country into even greater uncertainty.

Traoré, the family father in Bamako, fled the conflict in Libya last year only to find his own country sliding toward war.

"And where will I go again? Which place I can go again? I don't know where I'll want to hide myself and with my family," he said.

Author: Marine Olivesi, Bamako, Mali
Editor: Rod Mudge