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“The worst is yet to come or are we already in it? »asks a human rights defender in the face of the advance of jihadists in northeastern Mali and the unleashing of violence that accompanies it.
The regions of Gao and Ménaka have been the scene of a major offensive by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) since March. It gives rise to intense battles with the armed groups established in these immense desert expanses and the massacre of civilians. At least eleven of them died on Monday 21 November in an attack on a camp for internally displaced people near Gao. “If no action is taken, the whole area will be occupied” by jihadists, writes the defender of rights on Whatsapp. Based in Gao, he remains anonymous for his own safety, like many interlocutors.
Such testimonies collected by AFP as well as information from these nearly impossible-to-access areas reflect a continued push by EIGS and the desolation being sown out of sight, distressing even by the standards of a country that has gone from trial to trial. another for ten years.
“Climate of Terror”
The inhabitants, mostly nomads living in scattered camps, suffered from the war between Tuareg separatists and the army from 2012 to 2015. Now they are caught in the fire of the ISGS fighting rivals enlisted under the banner of Al- Qaeda, against the former separatists who signed the peace treaty in 2015, or against the loyalists who once fought the separatists.
The United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) report repeated attacks and punitive operations against communities accused of aiding the enemy or refusing to join jihadist ranks. Human Rights Watch reported in October that groups loyal to the ISGS had massacred hundreds of villagers.
Moussa Ag-Acharatoumane, leader of the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), one of the loyalist groups fighting IS, says the violence has assumed such proportions that ” Only God knows “ everything that has happened since march. He’s talking about “Climate of Terror” : “The whole economy is at a standstill, the aces are destroyed, (it is) an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, the displaced are piling up (in) Ménaka”he said.
Ménaka, Gao, Ansongo… the populations are moving en masse towards the cities, where their arrival is causing tension, or towards the camps, even on the other side of the border with Niger. A mayor of the Ménaka region says it in his city “There is nobody”. Nearly 60,000 displaced people have been registered in Gao alone, a UN document indicated in November.
Various actors explain that the jihadists rushed into the void left by the departure of the French anti-jihadist force “Barkhane”. “Barkhane” concentrated part of its operations against IS in these regions before being ousted by the junta newly allied with Russia.
“If you are not with them, you are against them”
Though porous, the Mali-Niger border delimits military actions. On the Nigerian side, the national army is fighting, supported in the air and on the ground by foreigners, including the French. On the Malian side, the army is confined to Ménaka, leaving the field relatively free for the jihadists.
“The way is clear for them”, says another local elected official, a refugee in Bamako. He himself lost his cousin in a bus attack in September. “They suspected him of being linked to MSA and Gatia”two armed groups in the area fighting ISIS. “If you are not with them, you are against them”he explains on the phone.
Following a proven pattern, military victory is followed by a violent social takeover with the subjugation of the villagers and the collection of the Islamic tax. An unmarried couple was stoned to death by IS in Tin-Hama village at the end of September. A “punishment for fornication” illegal, according to the United Nations. “They dug a hole on the day of the weekly fair on the 18th, put the 50-year-old man and the 36-year-old woman up to their hips in it before throwing stones at them”testifies a humanitarian in Ansongo.
Faced with such “misery”armed groups loyal to the Malian state are attempting, “in private, to unite the other actors to the cause”says a security official in Niger, evaluating the possibility of an alliance with the former rebels of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), but also with the Islam and Muslims Support Group (GSIM, JNIM in Arabic), the nebula affiliated with Al Qaeda.
But there are few chances to see a “common front”thinks an African diplomat in Bamako. “Politically, it seems difficult for both sides to show themselves openly today with Al-Qaeda”.