By Jemal Oumar and Nazim Fethi
It began with public lashings and escalated to a horrific stoning. Residents of northern Mali now find themselves with a choice: to accept an unrecognisable Azawad or reject the Islamist-terrorist alliance that has taken over their homeland.
Northern Mali residents thought they had seen the worst when Ansar al-Din and MUJAO seized control of the region. Al-Qaeda was already in the vast desert region, running training camps that doubled as repositories for kidnapped westerners, but Malians were untouched. The Touaregs’ long struggle for regional autonomy had also hardened citizens.
Even after the Islamist group and the al-Qaeda offshoot teamed up to segregate schools, force women to wear veils, shutter bars and night clubs, and inflict brutal lashings for smokers, drinkers and clean-shaven men, Malians still didn’t anticipate what would happen on July 29th.
Ansar al-Din militants killed two young Touaregs in Aguelhok, a village located between the Tsalit military base and the north-eastern city of Kidal. Witnesses said the Islamists placed the young man and woman in two separate pits and hit them with stones, as 300 of their neighbours looked on in silence.
The unmarried couple had two children, including a six-month old baby.
“They launched calls of distress and shouted profusely, but members of Ansar Al-Din did not have mercy, nor did they have mercy for the young children left behind,” journalist Mohamed Ag Ahmedou told Magharebia.
“The woman was pregnant with another baby who died in its mother’s womb,” Ag Ahmadou added.
Under Sharia law, a stoning for adultery requires a confession. If the person “denies or hides it, he cannot be stoned”, the imam of a Gao mosque, Ould Brahim, told Magharebia.
“I heard that the stoned couple had admitted it, but I do not know if they admitted it under duress or voluntarily,” the imam added.
Ansar al-Din asserted that the punishment was justified and vowed to stone anyone engaged in similar behaviour.
“They admitted to practicing immoral acts and requested to be cleansed via stoning,” Ansar Al-Din spokesman Sinda Ould Buamamah told Magharebia. “We explained to them the procedure and asked them to reverse their decision, but they insisted on the execution of the judgment,” he said.
“We do not force anyone. What we enact is the rule of Islam and criticism of this act is a criticism of Islam, not of Ansar Al-Din, because we only apply the law of God,” he said.
Ould Buamamah continued, “If the couple had reversed their confessions, we would not have implemented the judgment, but they did not utter a single word during the stoning.”
But according to Timbuktu reporter Yaya Tandina, “Ansar al-Din claimed that the couple confessed to adultery and asked to be stoned. No one in Timbuktu believes this tale, because it is illogical that any person would ask to be killed in this manner.”
The justifications put forth by Ansar al-Din are also unconvincing for fellow Touaregs. “How can one accept such practices of terrorism?” asked Ham Ag Mahmoud, a leader in the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
“These people are acting in a grotesque way. It has become difficult to co-exist with them. When one turns to killing, looting and intimidation, he becomes a criminal and should be eliminated.”
“We consider these groups merely usurpers and occupiers of our land,” he tells Magharebia.
The stoning left an indelible impression on the area. Boubakar Ag Mido, a native of Aguelhok, told Magharebia, “Personally, I did not want to attend the stoning because I cannot witness the slow killing of people.”
“People panicked and some wept hysterically when they saw the stoning,” he said. “The death left great sadness in the village, which witnessed this kind of incident for the first time.”
Yet the death of the young couple at the hands of Islamists encouraged the population of Gao to rise up against another violent implementation of Sharia.
Hundreds of youths stormed independence square in Gao on Saturday (August 4th) to prevent MUJAO from chopping off the hand of an alleged thief. The demonstrators were able to prevent the sentence from being carried out.
In response, the terrorist group attacked local radio presenter Abdoul Malick Maïga, The 32-year-old host of Gao’s Radio Adaar Khoïma had called on listeners to rally against the public punishment of the young thief. Maiga nearly died from the beating.
He remains in intensive care in a Gao hospital.
AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel reportedly told his foot soldiers in Mali to support Ansar al-Din and remain under its command. Droukdel seems to have chosen al-Qaeda’s Afghan model, which involves using a local organisation to impose Sharia law.
But such a strategy risks back-firing on the AQIM allies. Observers suggest that the population of northern Mali, which has always suffered from under-development, isolation and marginalisation, is not about to accept still greater injustice by bowing to the dictates of terrorists.
As one young man in Kidal put it, the terror groups fighting for control of the region are “mafia, thieves and drug smugglers”.
Still, the crisis shaking northern Mali needs to be taken very seriously, says Lies Boukraa, Director of the African Centre for Study and Research on Terrorism (CAERT).
“Whether they are called AQIM or something else, these are players seeking to take advantage of disorder in the Sahara,” Boukraa tells Magharebia.