UNHCR: Food shortages await thousands fleeing Mali conflict


Almost 7,500 refugees have fled into neighbouring countries since French and Malian forces launched a counter-offensive against Islamic militants almost two weeks ago and the exodus is continuing.

In Mauritania, 4,208 Malian refugees have arrived since the latest fighting began on January 11. After being registered at the Fassala transit centre, they are being transported further inland to the Mbera refugee camp, which was already hosting some 55,000 people from earlier displacements.

In Niger there are now 1,300 new refugees, mainly from the Menaka and Anderamboukane areas. During the same period, Burkina Faso has received 1,829 new refugees. These are mainly ethnic Tuaregs and Songhai from the regions of Gossi, Timbuktu, Gao and Bambara Maoude.

“To help receive people we have erected two hangars in Inabao, at the border with Mali, which is currently the main entry point for new refugees. Our partner, Plan Burkina, has also rehabilitated a water pump and has constructed emergency latrines,” a UNHCR spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said. “In part, this is aimed too at easing any possible tensions with the local population,” he added.

New arrivals continue to tell UNHCR that they left their homes because of French air strikes and fighting, as well as fears over the application of Islamic law, or Sharia. They also speak of increasing shortages of food and fuel, with traditional markets unable to operate. A lack of cereal is pushing breeders to either kill some of their animals as they have nothing else to eat, or to try to sell them.

Some refugees are travelling by private car or by truck, while others have arrived from Mali on foot or by donkey. Many newly arrived refugees are expecting additional members of their families to join them in the next days from Mali.

UNHCR and partners continue to assist those refugees who are in camps in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania by providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene structures, food, adequate shelter, health care and education.

In Burkina Faso, vehicles are going back and forth at the border to collect those who are unable to walk. “We are also continuing to relocate refugees from the border to safer sites inland,” spokesman Edwards noted.

On Saturday, a convoy with 568 refugees left the Ferrerio and Gandafabou refugee sites, in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region to be relocated to Goudebou camp near the town of Dori. Ferrerio will now only be used as a transit centre for the new arrivals before they are transported to Goudebou. In total, Burkina Faso is hosting 38,776 Malian refugees.

Including those displaced this month, almost 150,000 Malians have found refuge in neighbouring countries since the Mali crisis started in January 2012. Inside Mali, 229,000 people are displaced – mainly from the Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao areas.

For the internally displaced as well as for refugees, the immediate needs are for water, food, shelter and medical care. Living conditions are particularly precarious for the internally displaced and UNHCR is supporting income-generation activities in the Mali capital of Bamako for IDPs.

But humanitarian access to other areas of Mali is severely restricted by the security situation. Abdullah, 41, was staying in a small room at his father’s house in the capital after fleeing with his family from the southern town of Diabaly, which was captured by the Islamists on January 14 and briefly held.

Abdullah worked as a driver for a private company in Diabaly and told UNHCR he was picking up his boss at his home on January 14 “when we were attacked by six men. They were threatening us with their guns and Kalashnikovs and asked for the car keys before taking away the vehicle.” He returned home and stayed there with his family as the sounds of gunfire and explosions echoed around the town.

He decided to leave the next morning on foot with his wife and four children, heading south towards the capital. “We joined many other people who were leaving Diabaly. I was carrying my younger son on my shoulders. We went straight to Bamako,” Abdullah said.

In their small temporary home, his wife and four children sleep on the bed, while Abdullah bunks down on the floor. “It is normally a room used for storage,” he said, adding: “I just want to return to Diabaly and go back to work so that I can take care of my family.”

By Hélène Caux in Bamako, Mali



1 Jan 2013 Updates


Libya says it will put Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and Abdallahal- Senussi on trial “within a month”

Western Sahara: Right to self-determination affirmed by UN, international consultations in 2013 to unlock conflict. The Western Sahara issue witnessed a rebound during 2012, particularly with publication of the UN Secretary General’s hard-hitting report, criticizing barriers imposed on the MINURSO mission by Moroccan authorities and by Morocco’s withdrawal of confidence in Christopher Ross, later changing position due to strong international pressure.

Al Jazeera has a new television reporter in Mauritania, our very own Baba Hourma (@bHourma). He does an excellent job in this clip about immigration

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQTn1ZSVK1g]

1 Jan 2012 Mauritania bans plastic bagsI hope Baba will do an item soon on the ban on plastic bags which came into force in Mauritania today, an attempt to eradicate the extreme pollution caused by an influx of almost 1 billion bags annually. The campaign includes activities to raise awareness, including flyers,  distribution of paper bags, an explanatory video and media coverage. Penalties include up to a year in prison, and fines of up to 1 million Ouguiya (Euro 2,500) for manufacturers, 500,000 for importers, and up to 10,000 for users of the illegal plastic bags or “Zazo” as they are called. This is an ambitious enterprise for a country which has failed to eradicate descendant slavery despite repeatedly criminalising it, and which recently approved a new law prohibiting coups d’etat, which are almost a national sport in Mauritania.

Kinross Gold’s drilling subcontractor, Capital Drilling Mauritania, is accused of breaking labour laws to discriminate against CGTM union members. Capital Drilling gave itself an award for ‘Commitment and Excellence in Safety’ in August 2012 for having completed 500 days without any “lost time incidents” (LTI).

Meanwhile, reports that Mauritania’s Central Bank is restricting access to significant values of both local and foreign currency raised many questions and concerns. What happened to the bumper reserves boasted of in the middle of 2012, and praised by the IMF? Is this the result of massive capital flight following the “shooting incident of October 13? These and other questions are still looking for answers.

Despite the endless reinforcement in press statements that US and European troops will be involved in any future conflict as trainers and advisers only, Mali FM told JeuneAfrique journalist @Babahmed1: “Our soldiers are already trained”. He also added that elections are unacceptable while rebels still occupy the north, and is anticipating a donor conference this month. Interim president Traoré said more or less the same thin in a New Year’s Day speech. What is the point of the UN Resolution if they have no intention of abiding by the provisions attached to it?

Stone-throwing Palestinian protesters carry an injured protester during clashes with Israeli security officers in the West Bank village of Tamoun, near the West Bank city of Jenin January 1, 2013. Clashes broke out after an Israeli military operation in the village on Tuesday. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Stone-throwing Palestinian protesters carry an injured protester during clashes with Israeli security officers in the West Bank village of Tamoun, near the West Bank city of Jenin January 1, 2013. Clashes broke out after an Israeli military operation in the village on Tuesday. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Israeli soldiers disguised as vegetable vendors raided the Palestinian village of Tammoun, north of Nablus city. The village has been repeatedly raided, leading to many arrests over several years.
Today’s clandestine operation and the subsequent arrest of Murad Bani Odeh, a member of Islamic Jihad, led to clashes with residents who threw stones. Soldiers replied with live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas. One man was hit in the eye with a tear gas canister and taken to hospital for treatment, and over 100 people suffered inhalation effects of tear gas. A state of siege is now being reported.

More than 60 people were killed in a stampede at a New Year’s Eve celebration in Ivory Coast‘s capital, Abidjan

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?&v=qwffREFWcQc]
New Year's stampede in Abidjan  (Reuters)

New Year’s stampede in Abidjan (Reuters)

Details of Tunisia‘s new government line up were published by Al Jazeera. Now they need new policies & attitudes.

Last but not least, today is a special day for the internet.

Happy 30th Anniversary, Internet and TCP/IP!


#Mauritania: Sex, Lies and Videotape


Let’s break with tradition and do the sex part first. Yes, it has been suggested that there is a sex angle to the accidental shooting story of president Aziz in Mauritania! This is a quandary, as everyone is adamant that they do want the truth, but at the same time, no one wants it to be some sordid and sleazy tale of the president having an illicit relationship that went horribly wrong, and got him shot or injured or whatever. And yet, in the absence of any reasonable, logical and reliable alternative explanation, more people are gravitating towards this very unofficial yet somehow more credible version of events. I have to say right here: I have no way of knowing if the president was even attacked, let alone shot. All I know for certain is that something happened to him, and I have nothing to rely on apart from outright lies and half-truths peddled by the corrupt regime, or the meandering fantasies of observers (myself included!) whether inside or outside Mauritania.

In trying to keep an open mind I have to allow for two possibilities: that what happened to Aziz might have been staged, or might have been an accident. For me, only his prompt return will confirm the latter. Despite my efforts, I find myself increasingly convinced France and Mauritania are playing a dirty game, one designed to promote the prospect of a military misadventure in Mali. I could not for one moment believe that they are the only countries involved in such a farce.

Aziz’ post-surgery TV appearance last week reveals a gauze dressing on the left side of his lower neck

We have the president of Mauritania holed up in the Percy military hospital in Paris for additional care of an unspecified nature, despite being told his injuries in the October 13th incident were minor, and that the surgery performed in Nouakchott military hospital was a success. Close inspection of the footage of president Aziz’ post-surgery TV appearance last week reveals a gauze dressing on the left side of his lower neck, despite having the sheets pulled up to conceal it. Whatever happened in that area, it is unlikely to be related to the bullet which reportedly damaged in his colon and required a delicate 4-hour surgery.

Visible scarring on Aziz’ neck

Four days after the incident, when the French Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, paid a “social call” on Aziz, there was a small patch of scarred skin visible on Aziz’ neck, just visible above his over-sized pyjamas. It is difficult to tell what; it could just as easily be  a bullet wound or a burn. This is the time to note that the Percy hospital specialises in the treatment of burn injuries. The photos of Aziz and Le Drian were posted on the official ami.mr news site [ar] in Mauritania later on Wednesday, but not on the French Ministry of Defence website. The visit was largely ignored by the French and international media, despite Le Drian having just been widely quoted the day before  promising military action in Mali in “weeks, not months“. There was no press release, and the visit was not mentioned in the minister’s official engagements diary. A request for comment from the Ministry’s press office had not received a response at the time of writing this post.

Then there is the mystery of Ba Mamadou dit Mbaré, the only constitutionally legal replacement in case of the Mauritanian president’s incapacity, as President of the Senate. It was only discovered after Aziz left for Paris that Mr dit Mbaré was already on sick leave there himself. No mention had been made of this in any official media, and he was being reported on as normal, attending to his duties, until a few weeks ago. There has been no statement even now the news is out, and no comment on the nature or likely duration of his medical condition. This is being played as a non-issue, with officials asserting that Aziz is well enough to perform his duties while undergoing treatment. And so, for a week now, the country has been governed by an absent president, sundry unelected government representatives, and his Chief of Defence. The regular Thursday cabinet meeting was cancelled – this is important: because Aziz is the only validly elected official in the entire government, he has to sign off on everything, and every cabinet meeting has to be an “emergency meeting” convened by the president.

Now we are told that the French embassy is denying the President of the National Assembly, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a travel visa to Paris. But this is not quite accurate. What is really happening is Ould Boulkheir allegedly objecting to being asked to attend the consular office to give his fingerprints in order to create his visa. Ould Boulkheir holds one of three posts named in the constitution as having the power to declare Aziz unfit to serve, and through this manufactured stalemate, he is effectively prevented from going to Paris to assess the president’s true condition and raising the alarm if required. The other two are the Prime Minister (Laghdaf, a lapdog) and the head of the Supreme Court (the incumbent was recently replaced before the end of his official tenure by Aziz).

While this play unfolds, the external PR and media offensive is being ramped up: trying to tie the “shooting” to terrorists; claiming Mauritania is “seriously concerned” about the terrorist threat; re-hashing of any old news story mentioning AQIM and Mauritania. Over to the East, it would seem we are witnessing a replay of events, uncannily similar to those which preceded the NATO force’s arrival in Libya last year, in which someone busted jihadist contractors out of prison presumably to boost the rebel forces in northern Mali and for all we know, financed by a bank robbery in Yemen. This contrasts with almost total silence about conciliatory gestures being made through negotiations between various groups, and last weekend’s regional Tuareg conference in Lere, Nigeria. We should be on the lookout for increased reports of hostile actions: violence, beatings, rapes, robberies, etc, followed by more in-fighting and divisions. We should also pay attention to a developing story [fr] from Mali, of northerners who originally fled returning home despite the imposition of Sharia by the Islamists, and finding free though erratic power and water supplies, reduced food prices, and paid work. Poverty and misery in the south is said to be providing the impetus for the reversal. Word of this will spread to the refugee camps and, as winter sets in, repatriation could become an increasing trend. No wonder one of the NLP-type catchphrases in the media for the Sahel is “a race against time”. [See here, here, here and here]

The mistaken marksman of Mauritania, Elhaj Ould Hamoudi

Internally, the website Sahel Media was mysteriously unavailable to users in Mauritania of the Mauritel phone service (51% owned by CMC Morocco Telecom) for almost an entire day. Access was lost almost immediately after Sahel Media published a story [ar] about French Islamists* breaching the Western Sahara barrier built by Morocco, near the border with Mauritania, through which is being smuggled cocaine from Colombia. Sites carrying articles quoting AQIM supposedly threatening France remained freely accessible.

Sunday night, Mauritanian national TV produced the poor sap who has been named and shamed as “the shooter” – a rookie lieutenant from Kiffa whom we are told “is normally based in the north”. He was shown on TV [vid, ar] at prime time, to reinforce the official story about mistakenly firing on Aziz as  the president sped past him, in an unmarked car, at top speed. Even after a whole week to prepare and rehearse, there were inaccuracies in the retelling between this on-air confession, and the original official statement [NYT En], and even the words of the president himself [CSM En].

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera managed to do a 2-part interview [vid, ar] with Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, aka Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, the former Al-Qaeda number 3. The interview took place inside Mauritania, where one might expect he would be under strict orders not to talk to the media about his former role with Al Qaeda, as a condition of his recent release from custody. This would appear not to be the case, but even if there are objections, Aziz has his “I was in Paris” alibi. I am actually hoping that both the US government and the jihadists in Mali take notice of Abu Hafs, because he talks a lot of sense.

As for the Mauritanian political opposition, they collapsed like a gurney before the bullet hit the kidney-dish, and declared they would suspend all planned protests out of respect for their opponent’s debilitated state. At this point, please note that every previously elected member of government – ruling party as well as opposition – has collected a year’s salary gratis out of the state coffers, while the poverty-stricken population waits to hear yet another excuse for why there is still no date for either of the postponed elections. The opposition did not stand idle however: they called for an investigation and convened a standing committee to try and determine the true events of  October 13, and have called a press conference for Monday 22 October. One of them, Mohammed Ould Moloud, kept busy with a series of meeting with officials from various EU countries.

February 25 Movement – nothing left in Mauritania but questions

The only breath of fresh air in this whole stinking scenario once again comes from the activist movement of 25 February [ar], who formed a human chain along the main street of Nouakchott last Thursday, each one of them silently holding up a poster which totally captures the mood of the country at this time: a large, solitary “?”.

Some of the members of “m25fev”, as they are known, will be interviewed on Chinguetti TV tonight or tomorrow, if all goes to plan.  The best part of the silent protest was that the police didn’t attack or arrest the demonstrators. The next day the police rediscovered their calling, and attacked and arrested the peaceful pro-morality protesters. People have to remind themselves every time this happens (and it happens too often) that Mauritania is an Islamic Republic.

*For more on France as a breeding ground for Islamists, see Marc Sageman’s 2004 article “Understanding Terror Networks”. Or Google.

I wish I’d never seen Babak Dashab


I wrote this because I found myself reminiscing about why we should always blur faces in videos and photographs from protests inside Iran and any similar totalitarian regimes where the slightest sign of dissent – real or imagined – has serious, often life-threatening implications.


Babak (Rajabali) Dashab, arrested in December 2009 and sentenced to 6 years, after being identified from video showing him burning a log during an Ashura protest, has been freed from prison in Iran after serving a reduced 3 year sentence. Three years for making a bonfire. Look at his son. Three years is a lifetime to a child of his age.

We are responsible

Before the “Arab Spring” there was the equally exhilarating “Green Wave”. Social media was our new playground; we were transformed from no-life couch-potato geeks to “citizen journalists”. The buzz of finding and sharing news about massive street protests in an increasingly paranoid and isolated country like Iran was intoxicating. Iran kicked out the foreign press. “We are the Media!” became our battle cry.

On reflection it could just as easily have been “We Are Rank Amateurs!” or “We Are Gullible Idiots!”. Most of the time news was shared regardless of source. Some of us tried to “police” the torrent, but it was largely a losing battle against an ever-rising tide of misinformation and disinformation. Photos and videos were gobbled up by an insatiable appetite for “online activism”. We were going to post our way to freedom for Iran and poke CNN et al in the eye on our way up. In those days, the “media” were slow-witted and partisan, YouTube a petty censor. Our videos were removed on a whim, so we learned to copy, clone, remix, save, re-post, find new hosting venues. In so doing, we spawned thousands upon thousands of photos and videos.

This addiction to quantity without regard for quality or fact-checking quickly revealed its dark inner core. The risks to protesters of being arrested increased exponentially because of the photos and videos we were sharing. The regime countered this green wave of social media evidence of the unrest in Iran, and turned the green tide against the green movement. Images became evidence of crimes against the state. Evidence of terrorist acts. Evidence of insulting the Supreme Leader of the glorious revolution.

My reaction was horrified guilt. I had done this. I had shared without realising what could happen as a result of my actions, and now I was an unwitting accomplice in the arrest and torture of thousands of people. I had to do something, to redeem myself, to assuage the guilt, to convert the remorse into positive action. I started trying to raise awareness of this risk, and to demand that faces in videos be blurred, which is how I found  WITNESS – a fantastic team, they firmly hoisted that banner and ran with it. I credit them with getting YouTube to add a feature which will automatically try to find and blur all faces in a video.


I recall being asked by someone what they should do if they didn’t know how to blur faces? The simple answer is: ask the original poster to do it or get someone else to do it. If you can’t do that, then do nothing, don’t share. That person felt this was infeasible: they they were compelled to share, because it was so important to show “the world” what was happening in Iran. To this response, I asked: who is there to take photographs of what happens to people you helped to identify after they are arrested?

The other, more common and weakest of all excuses is that the image is “already out there”. So is AIDS – does that mean everyone should have unprotected sex? We should regard blurring faces as a prophylactic to protect against the lethal disease of brutal repression.

It’s not easy

Instinct takes over and before you know where you are, you’ve clicked! Because it only takes a click.. so really,the blurring needs to spread to the original content posters, our “enablers”. This needs massive, sustained loft to become an enduring, instinctive habit.

Apart from those misguided souls who are so fixated on their popularity that they would rather count likes and re-tweets of the content they post than actually help prevent innocent protesters from being targeted, there is also a subtle pressure from the social networks to share visuals. Just look at the “success” of the meaningless and crappy Instagram. Photos and videos are the media of social media content – which is far more interesting if it includes visuals. There are financial pressures on developers: more interesting content is an advantage in promoting social media platforms to advertisers and investors. But is it essential: surely you’ve heard about events that did not include images, but which nevertheless are broadcast wholesale by established media? The first examples that come to mind are President Obama declaring that he would not release images of  “the killing of Osama Bin Laden” and the alleged stoning of a young couple in Mali in July 2012. Not only were there no photos or videos of the reported stoning, it’s unlikely that any exist. Yet you will see these “facts” repeated ad nauseum in established media.

The reality about what gets covered in the press belies the worn-out excuses: traditional media outlets prefer to have images but they do publish controversial news without evidence, and they do accept these stories from citizen reporters or people claiming to be witnesses.

It is never too late to do the right thing

Go blurry:

How to Blur Faces in Photos Using GIMP free image editing software

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AL49Ox-zetA]

Mauritania Preacher’s Escape from Death in Mali


Massacred Preachers Funeral

Mouloud Ould Sidi Mohamed, the only one of ten preachers from Mauritania who survived the massacre of his companions in Diabaly, Mali, managed to escape by playing dead. The drama began when their bus was stopped at a checkpoint while on their way to a religious convention in Bamako. A Malian army officer was heard to proclaim loudly that this group were responsible for agitation in the north. They were soon directed to drive to an army barracks, with a military escort to show the way. On arrival, and before anyone had time to leave the bus, soldiers inside the compound unleashed a hail of bullets, killing almost everyone instantly. After hiding surrounded by the corpses, which were left in their vehicle by the squad of soldiers after they opened fire on them, he somehow crawled away to safety. Then began a 4-day trek until he came upon a village, where the residents took him for a madman. No wonder! When the Malian authorities took him from the village he was then subjected to interrogation for several days. Finally back in Nouakchott on Wednesday 20 September after his ordeal, he discovered they had made a coffin for him, assuming he had died with the rest of the group. Meanwhile, I have yet to hear more news about the driver’s assistant who was unaccounted for according to news reports last week. We can now ignore the story about one soldier having been responsible for this atrocity. We can’t ignore the information in the report issued 22 September by Associated Press, which I have printed to PDF (in case it changes or disappears) and also reproduce here with emphasis and [comments] added:

Massacre of preachers in Mali sign of broken army

By Rukmini Callimachi. Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report.

DIABALY, Mali (AP) — It was dusk when the aging Toyota pickup truck pulled into the first military checkpoint, loaded with at least 17 bearded men fingering prayer beads.

This pinprick of a village in central Mali is not even large enough to appear on most administrative maps. Cars pass through here so rarely that donkeys fall asleep in the center of the highway. The preachers were coming from Mauritania and had paperwork showing they were on their way to a religious conference in Mali’s capital, 270 miles (430 kilometers) away. None of them was armed.

Soldiers arrested them and brought them to a military camp. There they opened fire on the stationary truck, spraying it with their machine guns. Then they dragged out the corpses, buried them in a mass grave and launched a manhunt for those who had escaped. Within 1½ hours of the car arriving at the checkpoint, 16 of the 17 men were dead.

The AP has found that rank-and-file soldiers carried out the massacre of their own accord, ignoring not only the normal rules of engagement but also their own command structure. Their actions show just how much the military of this once-stable nation has broken down since a coup six months ago, with officers no longer able to control their troops.

These concerns about Mali’s military come at a time when the world is considering sending arms, equipment and troops to help it take back the north, which has fallen to Islamic extremists. Just this week, the United Nations Security Council instructed Mali’s neighbors to submit a detailed plan for military intervention, which the U.N. would support. “It’s as if Mali has fallen into a coma,” said analyst Gilles Yabi, the West Africa director for the International Crisis Group and author of a recent report on this troubled country. “The reality on the ground is that it’s the rank-and-file soldiers that are now in power. … And it’s in this context that you can explain such a grave blunder as what we saw happen in Diabaly.”

Mali is a country of 15.8 million people that is turning into an ungoverned vaccuum, a source of increasing worry for the rest of the world. It’s been exactly six months since junior officers overthrew the democratically elected government on March 22. In the wake of the coup, rebels allied with al-Qaida seized control of the north, creating a new haven for extreme Islam.

It was into this turmoil that the group of preachers stumbled, at around 7 p.m. on the night of Sept. 8. The AP has pieced their story together through interviews with the one known survivor, two police officers present at the time of the attack [this story says one police officer was present. Who was the other?] and their superior, diplomats, villagers, and family members in Mauritania, who prepared their bullet-riddled bodies for burial.

The Toyota minibus with plate No. 0148AN00 RIM rolled in just as dark was enveloping the bridge at Dogofri, nine miles (15 kilometers) north of Diabaly. Anyone in these parts would have recognized the letters RIM as standing for Republique Islamique de la Mauritanie, or Mauritania, Mali’s more religious neighbor to the north.

The preachers included at least nine Mauritanians and seven Malians, ranging in age from 25 to 54. They belonged to the Dawa Tablighi, a fundementalist but non-violent current of Islam. The Mali military had been instructed to monitor members of the sect, especially those trying to enter from neighboring countries, according to an internal memo dated Sept. 5, [just 2 days earlier] seen by Amnesty International [why AI, when, where?].

“In view of the situation in the north of the country,” the memo from the Department of Home and Security said, “It seems appropriate to consider steps to better marshal this association, particularly with regard to foreign participants, in order to limit their entry into the national territory.” [what does the rest of the memo say, does it mention the Dawa explicitly?]

The preachers met up in Fassala, a town at the Mauritanian border. Two of them had tried to come to Mali in July but had been turned back [turned back by whom, on what grounds, why were they trying to enter Mali in July?]. So to make sure they wouldn’t have any problems, they hired Moctar Bechir, a Malian truck driver who frequently transports merchandise from Mauritania to Mali.

On Sept. 8, the truck had already been rented by a wholesaler transporting about a ton of beans. The preachers sat squished together in the cab and on top of the sacks of beans, said 51-year-old Maouloud Ould Sidi Mohamed, the sole confirmed survivor of the massacre, in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.

The preachers were stopped at the entrance to Dogofri, where police checked their identity cards and asked questions. The paramilitary police, or gendarmes, wrote down the list of names in a register, a copy of which the AP saw. [then why say “at least 17” and “at least nine from Mauritania”?] They were stopped again at the bridge, this time by the military. That’s when the trouble started.

“There was a young man with us, Amane. He has a really nice beard,” said Mohamed. “When they saw him, they got suspicious.” They sent the men inside and searched the car. All they found, Mohamed said, was a couple of pots. Then they started to interrogate the preachers, one by one. They opened one man’s bag, and found clothes and a bar of soap. Then they put the men back in the Toyota and drove them to Diabaly, in a caravan between two pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.

When they saw what the soldiers were doing, the gendarmes radioed their commander. He instructed them to send one police officer [one, not two] to follow the convoy on his scooter. All the gendarmes who spoke to the AP requested anonymity out of fear for their safety. [they are station in a “pinprick of a village” – everyone would know who they are]

It takes less than 20 minutes to drive from Dogofri to Diabaly, a nine-mile-long dirt road of red earth beaten down by the tires of lorries. The road is lined by rice paddies on the left and a tributary of the Niger River on the right. On that evening, like on every other, women bathed in the river topless and laid their laundry to dry out on the rocky ground. Just about the loudest sound on any normal night is the high-pitched braying of a donkey.

When the caravan arrived at the camp, the gendarme and the soldiers in the two accompanying cars went into the commander’s office. Just 15 minutes later, the shooting erupted. The gendarme [singular] ran back out and saw bodies lying on the ground. He called his superior to say the soldiers were killing the preachers. The senior officer confirmed to the AP that he received the call between 8 and 9 p.m.

“It’s due to the indiscipline inside the army,” said the senior officer. “The night that this happened, everyone knows which soldiers were on duty. They decided themselves, without being given an order, and without consulting with their higher-ups to do this.”

The survivor, Mohamed, said the men in the truck could hear the soldiers discussing what to do with them. “I don’t think my friends could have imagined what was about to happen,” said Mohamed. “But I knew. I know this country. And I understood that it was over for us.” When the shooting suddenly started, Mohamed saw people falling around him. He himself fell and hid between the cadavers in the bed of the truck. A few moments later, he saw two people try to run. He followed them out of the car, crawling between the wheels of the lorry. He reached a small wall. While climbing it, he lost his shoe. So he left the other one behind, ran barefoot across the rice paddies and jumped into a canal. His robe hung heavy with water, so he took it off. He swam in his underwear and undershirt. On the other side, he hid by some trees.

He says he saw the light from the torches of the soldiers looking for him. He hid for five days. On the night of Sept. 13, they found him and took him back to the camp. Mohamed was held by the military incommunicado for a week. He was transfered from Diabaly to a garrison in the capital, Bamako, where he was kept under constant watch. He was too afraid to even speak with an envoy from the Mauritanian embassy. [consider that he could not know whether the Mauritania government was in any way linked to the attack]

He was released this Thursday after immense diplomatic pressure, and spoke to the AP inside the Mauritanian embassy in the minutes before he was whisked off to the airport. Both Malian and Mauritanian officials confirmed his identity. The soles of his feet were pockmarked by gashes after five days of walking without shoes.

If you follow the red dirt highway another 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) south, you reach the village of Kourouma. Souma Diallo, a 40-year-old machine operator, was getting ready to go to sleep at around midnight on Sept. 8 when he heard people shouting. He stepped out and saw the soldiers had caught an old man with a long beard. His hands were tied with his own turban. The man’s whereabouts remain unknown. [It is possible that he was taken back to the camp and killed]

Diallo also saw a young man who was bleeding from his head. It was the truck driver, Moctar Bechir — whom Diallo recognized because both have extended family in nearby Niono. Diallo told the soldiers he knew the young man, handed over his phone and asked the driver to call people who could confirm his identity. [I saw reports which suggest the driver had phoned people shortly after the incident. Someone certainly called the news in: how else would we have known about this the night it happened? I doubt Mali would have issued much 0f a press statement]

A few days later, on Sept. 12, the soldiers returned to Diallo’s home and arrested him, he said. They accused him of complicity “with the rebels.” They brought him to the camp and started screaming at him. The soldiers had blood-shot eyes, like they were drugged [no comment. Really.], he said.

When they briefly left him alone, Diallo bolted, crawled through a hole in a wall and ran for his life. Behind the kitchen, he came face-to-face with the driver, Bechir. He was tied to a bench with a rope around his waist. They said nothing to each other.

Diallo spoke to the AP from his hiding place in a different part of Mali on the condition that his whereabouts not be disclosed.

In the days after the shooting, nine bodies with multiple bullet wounds were repatriated to Mauritania. Seven [more] were buried in a municipal cemetery in Bamako.

Mali issued a government communique expressing deep condolences, but stopping short of taking responsibility for the deaths. Col. Idrissa Traore, director of public relations for the Malian military, acknowledged that the troops at Diabaly had violated the command structure. But he noted that the preachers came from the former sect of Iyad Ag Ghali, the head of one extremist group now controlling Mali’s north. [Iyad Ag Ghali is said to have once belonged to the same sect. He is said to have lost all membership privileges when he turned to violence. Iyad has had a busy life]

Traore said the military had kept Mohamed for a week because he was “in a bad psychological state,” and they wanted to question him. “An investigation is in process to determine all of this. And once we are done, we will make a declaration,” he said.

Representatives of the families of the dead have met with the minister of defense. He denied knowing anything about the driver. [I assume this refers to the Malian Minister of Defence. The one who has no control over the military]

Hassane Bechir, the 44-year-old brother of the driver, now spends his days waiting inside a room in Bamako. He smokes cigarettes, his dull eyes watching the passing images on a television a few feet away. “So long as I don’t have proof that he is dead, then to me, he is alive,” said the missing man’s older brother. “They haven’t given me a body. At the very least, give me his body.”

A Changing Story..

9 September 2012 France24 reported AFP [ar] saying an official statement and testimony from agendarme said 8 Malians and 8 Mauritanian were shot after refusing to stop at a checkpoint. In another report [ar] a source told a respected Mauritanian News agency that there were 18 passengers in the group altogether. This should be compared with other reports of 16 preachers, a driver and his helper. The latter two are still unaccounted for. Someone from the town where most of the Mauritania preachers lived told Aryal Mostenir website [ar] that there were 13 from Mauritania, 3 from Mali and the driver and that they got this news from one of the passengers,who had gone into the forest nearby to relieve himself, and fled when he heard shooting. Another Mauritanian agency reported being told that 3 of the group, including the driver, had managed to escape initially but were caught by Malian gendarmes with the collaboration of some local villagers [ar]  (note: the report does not say soldiers) and presumably killed.

The list of names [ar] published gave the impression that there were 13 preachers from Mauritania, 2 from Gao and one from the Malian refugee camp at M’bera, but it is possible that some of the names, especially those from Fassala, were in fact Malians.

16 September 2012

A week after the massacre, the bodies were returned to Mauritania and president Aziz, who was at the airport, was subjected to screams of verbal abuse and his cavalcade pelted with stones. Relatives and their supporters were very angry because they were not allowed to go to Mali to retrieve their deceased relatives; not allowed to travel on the plane with them; not allowed to see them when they arrived; and the burial was arranged in Nouakchott rather than in their home town, and without the necessary time to perform a thorough autopsy and report on the conditions of the bodies, in accordance with the families’ wishes.

The government paid them 2 million MRO (about $700) per cadaver and presumably thinks that’s an end to it. Meanwhile news from Diabaly [ar] came through that all evidence of the crime (presumably including the minibus) had been removed, the camp closed, and the officers, 6 NCOs, and 6 soldiers had been transferred to Ségou for a “long vacation” as one of the security forces was said to have described it.

On this day we learned [ar] that the mystery witness who escaped death because he was taking a toilet break was not a preacher, driver or driver’s assistant, but an itinerant trader. He made it back to Fassala and supplied some more details, but we are still waiting to hear his story in full. Finally we can begin to understand AP’s apparent hesitation in confirming the number of preachers/Mauritanians – they have not been able to confirm or deny the presence of this additional witness.

18 September 2012

Aryal Mostenir reports [ar]The surviving preacher is still held in Bamako, with Malian authorities saying he is too weak to travel, and the witness from Fassala has now gone to Nouakchott, presumably for more questioning. No further news from him since, and the driver is still missing. Meanwhile the investigation committee promised by president Aziz has yet to be formed and no photographs of the vehicle – its fate still unknown -have emerged.

20 September 2012

Mali finally sent the preacher back to Mauritania, where he was greeted at the airport by the Foreign Minister. The same day, Mauritania’s Ambassador to Mali, Sidi Mohamed Ould Hanenah was shunted into a new post as director for European Affairs at the Ministry of Interior.

More Questions

Is this a war crime? Was it an act of aggression by Malian military against civilians of Mauritania and Mali regardless of their respective governments writing it off? Was it planned, premeditated? Why was the religious group under surveillance? Is this event in any way connected to the 9 September 2012 death of AQIM leader Nabil Makhloufi, aka Nabil Alqama, in a road accident in Mali – news which was confirmed by a Timbuktu-based spokesman for Ansar Dine (Iyad’s group) the same day?

What does a Toyota minibus look like?

Toyota HiAce 14 seats (including driver)