MOPTI, Mali — The girls don’t know each other, but they live in identical plastic tents about a mile apart. They’re both 12, struggling to adjust here, pining for what they can see only in their dreams.
“The cows, goats and sheep,” said Hamsa, a daughter of Fulani herders.
“Our house made of stone,” said Mariam, a daughter of Dogon farmers.
Their families escaped to neighboring camps this spring after gunmen stormed their rural villages in central Mali, spraying bullets into bedrooms and torching grain huts. Their people had shared that land in a fragile peace for decades before the terrorists invaded, setting off a surge of violence between the two communities.
Islamist militants who once tried to conquer Mali by force are striking again with an insidious new strategy, security analysts say: Fighters linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are provoking feuds between old neighbors — the Fulani and the Dogon — and gaining ground by offering to protect victims of the conflict they’re stoking. Now a record number of people are fleeing their homes in this West African nation twice the size of Texas.
The extremist groups “broke down systems that usually deal with intercommunity violence,” said Dennis Hankins, U.S. ambassador to Mali.
Chaos has spilled south into countries previously unshaken by terrorism, including Burkina Faso and Benin, and threatens to turn a growing swath of West Africa into a refuge for Islamist groups who have lost territory in Syria and Iraq and aim to rouse followers elsewhere.
Mali has sent a third of its armed forces into the restive Mopti region, where they’re backed by soldiers from France and the United Nations, as well as American intelligence and logistics. The battle fought on some of the world’s harshest terrain shows no sign of abating, experts say, as extremists appeal to communities in need by claiming they can offer services the government has failed to supply.
Malians who flee to Sevare, a dusty garrison town in Mopti, divide into camps by ethnic group. But inside those concrete walls, common sentiments emerge: People say they don’t actually hate their neighbors. They’re not sure how this happened — how dormant tensions could explode into massacres.
Like many from both communities, two girls in plastic tents are gripped by the same desire.
“I really miss my village,” said soft-spoken Hamsa, who lives in the Fulani camp, where she busies herself with the French alphabet.
“I hope we can return soon,” said chatty Mariam, who lives on the Dogon side and prefers numbers.
The fighting that upended their lives has killed 817 civilians since January, up from about 574 in the previous year, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Between January and June, 150 children were killed, per U.N. figures.
And at least 140,000 people have been forced from their homes this year, according to a September report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center — a nearly sevenfold upswing over the past 12 months.
Among them are the Dogon, who hunt, farm and practice a mix of religions in central Mali, and the Fulani, who are primarily Muslim and herd cattle across West Africa. The groups have tangled over the years, especially as climate change has shrunk fertile land.
Tensions boiled over in March when gunmen surrounded a Fulani village, setting dwellings ablaze and killing nearly 160 people. Then an ambush on a Dogon community in June claimed dozens more lives.
Leaders from both ethnic groups have denied involvement in the attacks, which followed smaller bursts of tit-for-tat violence, but villagers from both sides said in interviews they were certain the other was responsible. They criticized the military for failing to shield them. (The government has said it lacks the resources to patrol the vast countryside.)
Fueling the fight was an enemy in the shadows, according to Western officials and security analysts. Unknown gunmen have targeted Dogon chiefs and Fulani imams in recent years, eliminating leaders who had negotiated harmony between the ethnic groups for generations.
The al-Qaeda branch JNIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara publicly urged the Fulani to join their ranks for protection, sparking accusations the herders were harboring terrorists.
The Fulani denied the claim and accused the Malian military of arming Dogon hunters to destroy them.
Amid the confusion, no one was there to help Hamsa and Mariam when the conflict reached their doorsteps. Both families fled in March, unsure of where they were going. Both girls have nightmares. Both lost relatives.
“My grandparents,” the Fulani daughter said.
“My uncle,” the Dogon daughter said.
A devastating chain reaction
The story of how Hamsa and Mariam found themselves in neighboring settlements starts eight years ago and 1,400 miles northeast with the fall of the Libyan government.
Mercenaries once employed by Moammar Gaddafi flooded back to their native Mali in 2011 with machine guns and grenades, unleashing a devastating chain reaction.
Some of these ethnic Tuareg rebels forged a shaky partnership with Islamist militants in a quest to claim Mali’s north, which failed after France stepped in. (The rebels signed a peace agreement with the government in 2015.)
But terrorism is a stubborn menace. It crept to Mali’s more populated center. Extremist leaders weakened in the Middle East called on Africans to take up the fight.
“From [Afghanistan] to Iraq to Yemen, to Somalia to western and central Africa,” Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said in a recording released in September. “Sacrifice your lives if you have to.”
This cause is tempting to some young men, who analysts say have grown desperate for food in recent years as opportunity dried up in Mali’s center and the government focused on securing the capital city, Bamako, about 400 miles southwest.
Criminal gangs in their neighborhoods were clogging main roads, killing at random as they trafficked drugs. Herders couldn’t move livestock, and farmers couldn’t sell crops.
Mali became “a haven for many terror groups to stage and launch attacks across the region,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, former head of the United States Africa Command, said in a February speech.
Tourism dried up in the region known for historical mosques, camping under the stars, dwellings carved into sandstone cliffs and a celebrated music scene. (Bono performed at a Timbuktu festival with Malian group Tinariwen in 2012.)
Now foreign governments warn tourists to avoid Mali. “Do not travel,” reads the U.S. State Department’s advisory, and if you do: “Draft a will.”
Under mounting pressure, former prime minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga and his entire government resigned in April.
His replacement, Boubou Cisse, ordered roughly 15,000 troops to the country’s center this spring in response to the escalating bloodshed. (His predecessor said Mali lacked the manpower to stop the conflict, but critics accuse the country’s leaders of taking too long to integrate former Tuareg rebels into their forces after repelling the takeover.)
Violence spiked again Oct. 1 when extremists ambushed two army outposts, killing 25 soldiers and stealing their equipment.
And people in makeshift camps wonder when they can go home.
Two girls. Same confusion.
Hamsa, the daughter of Fulani herders, misses the clay.
She used to dig for beige earth after a downpour and sculpt little families of cows.
It’s harder to find at her camp, which UNICEF runs with the Malian government. About 150 people from her ethnic group share a space the size of a football field. Sheep graze around their tents — reminders of home.
A bus took her 74 miles to Sevare, which has a military base, a bar named after Facebook, a photo studio and some 40,000 people trying to carry on as normal.
Extremists bombed a regional counterterrorism headquarters here last summer, and last month a bus hit a land mine outside town, killing 14. (The al-Qaeda branch JNIM released a rare apology on social media — it was intended, they said, for French soldiers.)
“It’s difficult to say what brought us here,” said Hamsa’s father, Drissa Bolly. “I’d never in my life experienced ethnic violence. I don’t know who did this.”
Across town, Mariam, the daughter of Dogon farmers, hears similar confusion from her mother.
“It’s a misunderstanding between communities,” Aissata Toupema said. “I cannot explain it.”
Both families fled when gunfire rang out in the dark. Neither saw the attackers. Just buildings on fire.
Both hunkered inside their tents on a recent Tuesday as a sandstorm blasted Sevare. They packed together with new roommates, waiting for the sky to clear.
On these slow afternoons, Mariam thinks of her mare — a gray beauty with white spots. She misses brushing the horse, who didn’t have a name. There’s only a stray dog here.
Hamsa tries to focus on school. Teachers help her recite French letters. (Mariam looks forward to math class.)
Neither knows anything about the terrorists.
“I had a lot of freedom,” Hamsa said.
“I pray we can find peace,” Mariam said.