The country was turned into a nightmare for its citizens, especially the minorities, as the Malian forces began to tighten their grip on terror-infested regions.
BAMAKO — As the UN Security Council implicated the Malian army in "war crimes" in its recent investigation, the scale of human rights violations committed by different state and nonstate actors in the country has come to the fore for the first time since the last decade.
Prior to the UN report, rights groups have time and again accused the Malian security forces, as well as terror groups run by so-called Islamists of serious human rights abuses.
How did the country turn into a nightmare for its citizens?
In early 2013, as the French army and Malian security forces cleared large parts of the country from several terror groups, the Malian army came in and filled the power vacuum. Soon after, cases of enforced disappearances of the minority Arab and Tuareg populations allegedly by the Malian security forces were recorded in Timbuktu.
France intervened militarily in Mali as the Malian authorities asked them to do so in 2013. They came in to halt the advance of terrorist groups towards the south of the country, as the northern regions of this West African country had fallen nine months earlier into the hands of the Tuareg fighters, who were supported by terror groups linked to Al Qaeda.
When the Malian security forces first entered Timbuktu in January 2013, they were welcomed by civilians, who celebrated the return of the men in uniform for several weeks.
Although many Arabs and Tuaregs had fled the city for fear of reprisals from the army, as many of them were involved in the rebellion in the northern parts of Mali, some had stayed behind, waiting for law and order to be restored.
Aly Kabbady, a 70-year-old Arab, was among them. He even gifted an ox to the army. A few days later, however, he was forcibly taken away and his body was found six months later.
Speaking to TRT World, his son Mohamed Ould Aly Kabbadi narrated the "ordeal" he and his family are going through.
"On January 14, 2013 the zone commander at the time had reassured my father (that he will be safe) and even issued him a document allowing him to stay in Timbuktu. But a few days later he was kidnapped and executed for reasons unknown. At the time it was the Malian army that controlled the city of Timbuktu in the north," Mohamed said.
"Since that day there has been no mention of it. I feel dejected. No one is talking about justice. The body was found six months later. The perpetrators of these crimes are getting benefits and promotions from the Malian army while we, the victims, continue to live in distress".
Mohamed holds the French army responsible for training and bringing back the Malian army into civilian areas without ensuring accountability and regards for human rights.
"The French army brought back an army that it could not control. This is what makes the situation deteriorate," he said.
There are 10 other families like his who accuse the Malian army of having committed abuses against their parents and relatives on February 13 in Timbuktu.
Fatoumata Karambaye's husband was killed by the French army on September 1 last year. He was travelling on a passenger bus from Bamako, the capital city, to join his family in the town of Gao, where France has a military base.
Sighting the vehicle, the French army opened fire, killing Karambaye's husband and injuring two other passengers.
The French army has more than 5,100 military personnel in Mali and the Sahel. Its presence in Mali as part of the fight against terrorism is criticised for being "silent on human rights".
The loss of her husband has greatly affected her and her children. She had last spoken to her husband on the phone on the morning of September 1, a few hours before he was killed by the French troops.
With tears in her eyes, she says she has now put her fate in God's hands.
"After his death the French army came to offer us condolences. They didn't tell us anything afterwards. They didn't give us anything. If my husband knew he was going to die on that journey, he would never have taken that route", she said.
"I want justice."
The French army defended its action saying a bus was travelling at high speed towards a French military convoy.
The vehicle, according to the French army, was first "subjected to verbal and gestural warnings, then to a first warning shot, while the threat of suicide vehicles is high".
The question of minorities
The Arab and Tuareg minorities in the north of Mali started an armed rebellion in the early 1960s soon after the country gained independence from the French occupation. But the freedom came at a heavy cost for the country's minorities, especially the Tuaregs who were separated from the Arab and Berber dominated desert lands, as the new borders were drawn. The Tuaregs had more in common with the Arabs and Berbers than the black people of the south, with whom they were forcibly merged as the French departed from the country.
Ever since, several Tuareg uprisings have been crushed by the Malian army with brute force, causing large scale human rights abuse.
Various human rights bodies have approached Mali's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), a state-run organisation devoted to recording the rights abuse in the country, petitioning it with the reports of cold-blooded murders, enforced disappearances and other kinds of prisoner abuse, especially in areas dominated by the ethnic group called Peulh of Fulani.
Aguibou Bouare, the president of Mali's National Human Rights Commission, said that they have indeed received several reports indicating that "certain elements of the Malian army have committed human rights violations," but unless the information is "cross-checked on the ground," "we cannot certify" whether the army was truly involved in those abuses.
"We ask the Malian State to take an interest in the fight against impunity, to set up serious commissions of inquiry to follow up, translate and sanction the perpetrators of human rights violations," Boure said.
Amnesty International in Mali has also documented violations of civilian rights by the Malian army. "In our two previous reports we made a case," says Ramata Guisse, director of Amnesty International Mali. Between February and March 2020, Amnesty International reported that at least 23 people were either "extrajudicially executed or otherwise unlawfully killed and 27 others were arrested and then forcibly disappeared by the Malian army" in the communes of Diabaly and Dogofry.
The UN documented 17 cases of extrajudicial executions by the Malian Defense and Security Forces in 2019 in several areas, such as Intahaka (Gao region) and Mondoro (Mopti region). They were also held responsible for at least four acts of torture and ill-treatment.
The Malian army has not yet officially denied the UN accusations, but a senior officer, pleading anonymity, told TRT World that the Security Council's allegations were false.
"Those who are responsible for reporting this information do not even make the trip to the field. From their position they only take information given by a part of the population. A Dogon or a Peulh may call to say that the Malian army did this to me, did that to me. And they put all this in their report without checking," the officer said.
"There may be isolated cases, I agree with that. Even if that has to be proven, it is not enough to just say it in a report. These are prepared and mounted coups against Mali; the Malian people must stand up against these false accusations of the UN against the army."
Brehima Ely Dicko, a professor of sociology at the Universite Des Lettres Et Des Sciences Humaines De Bamako, told TRT World that the involvement of the military in violence against civilians is "fairly classic," and "not a typically Malian phenomenon."
"In all countries where there are rebellions, in all countries where there is terrorism, it is these two factors that put national armies to the test," he said.
"If there are recurrent rebellions and terrorism, the army finds itself in uncomfortable situations and often because of the frequent ambush attacks, some soldiers get fed up. In one specific case of central Mali, many suspected terrorists were arrested and held in Mopti. They were transferred to Bamako and then most of them were released because they were arrested at the wrong time and in the wrong place. This often creates the feeling of frustration among the armed forces."
Dicko said the army develops a lot of resentment against the country's justice system because they see their colleagues dying in the line of duty while courts release suspected terrorists.
"Some soldiers who believe that the Malian justice system does not sanction or condemn the presumed terrorists tend to take justice into their own hands," he added.
Speaking of France's role, Dicko said that France mobilised its allies to "bomb Libya" and then the weapons ended up in Mali.
"Many former Libyan soldiers found themselves in Mali and they launched a rebellion against the Malian state. In this sense France has a direct responsibility for the violence in Mali."