By Kate Thomas
BAMAKO, Mali (AlertNet) – When armed Islamist fighters arrived in the northeastern Malian village of Haribomo near Timbuktu, one of the first things they did was sip sweet tea with the local imam. They then told him how they expected the village women to behave.
“The Islamists met with the imam and they said, ‘Let us tell you our rules’,” said Adane Djiffiey Djallo, a coordinator at Aide et Developpement au Mali, a Timbuktu-based non-governmental organisation. “They said women would no longer be allowed to go to work, to the market or wash in the river.”
But the imam turned to the Islamists and said: “‘Let me tell you my rules’”.
He explained many women headed up households or had jobs of their own while their husbands worked on farms. ‘“I can't stop you forcing them to cover their heads – but I won't allow you to ban them from carrying out their daily activities’,” the imam said, according to Djallo.
At first, the women of Haribomo were relieved.
Tuareg fighters from the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) had seized Haribomo and other parts of northern Mali following a March 2012 military coup that plunged the previously stable West African state into chaos. But better-armed and wealthier Islamist groups had chased Tuareg fighters out of town.
Under the Tuareg occupation, there were cases of gang rape and an increase in forced marriage. The Haribomo women hoped things would improve.
But the Islamists brought Sharia law, with its brutal punishments such as lashing and stoning. They forced the women of Haribomo to cover up from head to toe and they outlawed sex before marriage – only to commit acts of sexual violence against the women themselves.
REPORT CITES HUNDREDS OF CASES
Fatoumata Cisse, a teacher from Gao, said the daughter of a friend was forced into marriage with a member of Mujao – the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, an Al-Qaida splinter and one of the five groups of Islamist fighters present in northern Mali.
“He forced her to have sex with him, and when she became pregnant, he told her she must name the baby Mujao,” Cisse told AlertNet. “Fortunately, he was gone before the baby was born.”
Cisse's story is one of hundreds of accounts of sexual violence emerging in the wake of the French and African intervention to liberate northern Mali.
There have been at least 200 cases of forced marriage and sexual violence – including against men – since March 2012, according to the Gao-based non-government organisation GREFFA, citing a report by the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. GREFFA saw the report but it has not been made public.
Meanwhile, a joint initiative by U.N. Women and GREFFA has collected the testimonies of 52 girls and women who suffered gender-based violence in the towns of Gao and Menaka since April last year.
TUAREGS ARE MAIN AGGRESSORS
But while there are credible accounts of violence carried out by Islamist fighters, most of the testimonies cite Tuareg rebels as the aggressors, said GREFFA director Fatimata Toure, who has been hearing from victims and documenting cases of sexual abuse.
“In Gao, members of the MNLA took girls as they walked along the streets, or lifted them from their own homes and drove them to the abandoned barracks of the Malian army,” said Toure.
“We heard how they were sometimes handcuffed and locked inside rooms there – for 48 or 72 hours – and raped collectively by as many as four men at a time,” she added.
Toure said the worst atrocities were committed in Menaka, a dusty town in the shadow of the Ader Douchi hills in northeastern Mali.
“We heard how a daughter was raped together with her mother, while her father was tied down and forced to watch. Girls under 12 years old were attacked, as were women over 60. One woman lost an eye when the rapist beat her,” said Toure.
Sexual violence carried out by members of the MNLA mostly targeted women and girls from the noble Songhai and slave caste Bella ethnic groups. Although wealthy Tuaregs use Bella women and girls as slaves and servants, Toure said there were few acts of sexual violence against them before March.
After the Malian army fled from the Gao area, the MNLA no longer had an enemy to fight so they turned on the local population, Toure explained.
“Many of the young men who committed these acts didn't grow up in Mali – they are Tuareg men who spent their formative years fighting in the conflicts in Chad and Libya,” she added.
There have also been cases of women and girls being sexually attacked by men speaking Hausa, the predominant language of northern Nigeria. Media reports and witnesses say the Islamists have recruited Nigerians to their cause.
While fewer cases have been reported of sexual violence carried out by Islamist groups, Toure said she had heard the testimonies of a number of women and girls who had been attacked by Islamists.
“In January, an 11-year-old girl was raped by a man fighting alongside them (the Islamists). We've heard several cases like this, usually carried out by young men recruited locally by Islamist groups.”
“They imposed Sharia law, giving punishments of lashes to girls who had sex before marriage, yet their fighters got away with sexual violence. It's hypocrisy,” she added.
Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch's Senior West Africa Researcher, said she had heard two or three credible accounts of sexual violence linked to the Islamists. “These merit further investigation," she said.
Dufka added that while forced marriage in northern Mali is not a new phenomenon, accounts of girls being forced to marry more than one man are particularly worrying.
“The rate of forced marriages increased when the MNLA came to town,” said Cisse, the teacher from Gao, who told how a Tuareg man forced a neighbour’s daughter to marry him. He paid a high bride price and took the woman to her new home – but four men were waiting there to rape her. “She was tricked,” said Cisse.
Witnesses say the Tuaregs often paid a bride price first, perhaps as a show of power or financial clout.
HELP FOR SURVIVORS
The Tuaregs have vowed to support the French intervention and the Malian army against Islamist groups, but with so many reports of sexual violence committed by them, rights experts and NGOs are voicing concern.
“Nobody can trust the MNLA men now,” said Djallo. “How can they fight for our stability in Mali when they unleashed such chaos?” she said. “They came to our homes to drink tea, to celebrate marriages and holidays … Then suddenly they were destroying the hospitals, raping women, carrying weapons through the streets.”
Some of the survivors have said they plan to stay in Bamako, where they can more easily forget the violence. Others may return to the north if military operations bring calm.
A trauma centre for the survivors of gender-based violence and other conflict-related abuses has been set up inside the main hospital in Gao, but recovery won't be easy.
“We documented the case of a woman who gave birth to twins fathered by a rapist,” Toure said. “The babies have light skin – it's obvious that they are Tuareg children. She'll have to deal with the shame inflicted by the community, and yet the children are a part of her too. What if they want to find their father one day?”
Despite the taboo associated with rape in northern Mali, some women are pursuing justice against their aggressors. Dozens have agreed to document their stories with Toure and have lodged official complaints with police in Bamako. In the midst of the French intervention, there has not yet been any response.
“We hope that will change when things are calmer,” Toure said. “Still, these women are brave. Launching an official complaint carries high stakes. If the community finds out you've been raped, you risk being alone for the rest of your life.”