Every day, several thousand people flee northern Mali to makeshift refugee camps that have sprung up in remote regions of Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Guinea, according to the United Nations. The fortunate can afford to pay for transport. The unfortunate walk across a desolate tableau, seeking refuge in some of the hottest, least developed nations in the world, already under pressure from a serious food and humanitarian crisis.
It is an exodus unlike any other experienced in West Africa — driven not just by war or drought but by Ansar Dine, a puritanical, al-Qaeda-linked movement whose Arabic name means “defenders of faith.” Seizing advantage of a power vacuum in the capital, far to the south, the Islamists swept through northern Mali this year, piggybacking on a Tuareg separatist rebellion. Today they are in firm control, imposing a strict version of Islam that includes compulsory beards for men and a ban on television — requirements that echo actions by Afghanistan’s Taliban and Somalia’s al-Shabab militia.
The militants have also destroyed ancient mosques in the northern Malian city of Timbuktu, a center of Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries, evoking comparisons to the Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan. Less well-known is the emotional trauma that Ansar Dine has inflicted on a population that has watched helplessly as its traditions have been upended, leaving no choice but flight.
That trauma can be heard in the quivering voice of Assalim Ag Ehadt, a 46-year-old cartoonist who used to sell sketches for a living. He fled the town of Menaka last month to come here to Abala, a wind-swept village near Niger’s border with Mali where a patchwork of U.N.-erected tents has mushroomed to a camp accommodating more than 50,000 refugees.
“We had fairs, we played music, we staged plays,” Ehadt recalled of Menaka. “Now the city is dead.”
A part of him seems to have died with it. He remembers watching children play soccer on playgrounds or enjoy videos on their cellphones. Men would smoke; women would wear light, colorful fabrics, revealing skin. They would speak to each other on the streets. But their new rulers have decreed that such mundane actions are against Islam.
“They have imposed laws that I don’t recognize, that I was not brought up with,” Ehadt said. “This is not a life. Psychologically, I can’t return there.”
Women had freedoms
Mali, the largest country in West Africa, is 90 percent Muslim. The strain of Islam practiced there is tolerant, absorbing tribal beliefs and allowing women the freedom to engage in business and politics, mingle freely with men and choose whether to wear a veil. Even though northern Mali has seen the rise of ultra-conservative preachers and mosques in recent years, few expected fundamentalist Islam to become a controlling social force there.
Mohamed Ag Intabakatt, a 54-year-old teacher from the Malian city of Gao, said the militants destroyed or closed many schools, forcing teachers to flee. In schools that the militants reopened, students have been ordered to learn Islamic sharia laws, and subjects such as biology have been banned as Western and likely to promote infidelity. Boys and girls are separated, with girls sitting in the back of classrooms, as in mosques.
“The children have lost their education,” Intabakatt said.
Last month, Ibrahim Maiga, 50, witnessed a group of militants chasing a girl in front of his house. Her crime? Not wearing a djellaba, or full-body robe. She managed to escape, avoiding 10 lashes from a whip, he said. He thought of his wife and eight children, including four girls. It was an easy decision to leave.
“There’s no work, no food. And they are restricting our freedoms,” Maiga said. “Why should we stay?”
Collective anger grows
The restrictions on women have been felt especially in a rural tribal society where their role is vital to family and community life, encompassing everything from buying food at the markets to tilling the fields and taking care of the children. “It’s the woman who goes to the market, who cooks the food. This is not a man’s role,” Ehadt said. “This is the way we have lived for centuries.”
With each day, the collective anger grows in this refugee camp. Questions swirl in tent after tent, particularly during a meeting among the camp’s elders. Will Mali’s neighbors send a military force to oust the Islamists? Will the United Nations back such a force? When will they return home?
No one had any answers. One leader said he was prepared to remain in his tent for 20 years if northern Mali remains under the control of Ansar Dine.
“In Islam, you don’t kill your own brother,” said Ahiyu Ag Intawat, 72, head of the camp’s committee of elders, clenching his fists. “In Islam, you don’t drive your brothers out of their country and turn them into refugees.”
He paused and looked out at the barren moonscape he now calls home.
“They want to create their own world,” he said, before adding wistfully, “I hope the world will not allow this to happen.”