Almost half a million people have fled the area since a militant Islamist group took control of northern Mali earlier this year
Last year, Dazed was in Timbuktu, Mali, for the Festival au Désert, a stunning and vibrant celebration of the region’s arts, music and culture. One year on and there is little to celebrate about the political situation this ancient town and its 55,000 inhabitants now find themselves in.
Since the beginning of April, militant Islamist group Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”) has been imposing its own twisted form of Islamic law over a large portion of northern Mali. The group has banned all forms of entertainment, including music, games, TV and sports, and introduced the mandatory veiling of women, the stoning of adulterers, the mutilation of thieves and a blanket ban on alcohol and smoking.
It has overseen the wanton destruction of mosques and mausolea that have stood in the town for thousands of years. Many of these contained some of the one million ancient manuscripts held in Timbuktu alone. The cultural obliteration does not end there – the group has also vowed to destroy the city's 13 remaining World Heritage sites.
Over 435,000 civilians have fled the crisis area in the north since troubles began in March. Some have sought refuge in neighbouring Algeria, Mauritania and Niger, while others headed south towards the capital, Bamako. The fear for the latter is that the jihadists might now turn their attention to the remainder of Mali.
"It probably doesn’t make sense for (the jihadists) to move south at the moment,” says Channel 4 international editor Lindsey Hilsum, who recently returned from a week-long trip to Mali. “They have three airports; they have the range of the desert and several cities. It makes much more sense for them to consolidate their hold there, where they can smuggle drugs and fly in weapons. The moment they come south will inevitably spark an international response.”
This hasn’t stopped militias in the south taking up arms in preparation for conflict with Ansar Dine – groups like the Bamako-based Death Before Shame, named after the shame of the national army’s failure to stop the Islamist uprising in the north.
In reality though, they are vastly outnumbered and outgunned. Together with its allies, Ansar Dine consists of several thousand armed fighters, financed largely by ransoms paid by the families of kidnapped Europeans and illicit drug trafficking.
Inflammatory statements from the north have hastened the formation of militias. Ansar Dine spokesman Senda Ould Bouamama declared last week that “we are already an Islamic state, and the Taliban of Afghanistan are our model,” making the group’s intentions clear to those who remain in the country.
Just days ago, Islamists retook the town of Douentza, just 500 miles north-east of Bamako, after a local militia named Ganda Izo briefly liberated it. There have been calls from some, including Mali’s military government, for regional assistance in dealing with these issues. The logistics and likelihood of such support have yet to be decided.
The suggestion comes as the larger Sahel region of Africa, which stretches from coast to coast, deals with various other jihadist problems, such as Boko Harem, a violent terrorist group in Nigeria, and the wider West African Food Crisis. Hannah Armstrong, a research fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs who has been based in Bamako since February, explains: “There are indisputable private doubts about the capacity of the region's weak states and fractured militaries to tackle a threat of such magnitude”.
There is little appetite within the international community to intervene, the dust having only recently settled in nearby Libya following the NATO intervention to oust Colonel Gaddafi ended in October last year. Discussions have taken place at the United Nations about deploying a stabilisation force to Mali’s northern regions, but in absence of an elected government in Bamako this has proved problematic.
There are plans afoot for the continuation of the Festival au Désert in exile, which will be announced in time. For now, however, the situation in northern Mali could not be more urgent.
Text by Sean Glynn