Gao’s residents and refugees describe Islamist takeover

Facade of a bank in Gao, just last week. Photo submitted by one of our Observers in Mali.
 
Mali’s northeastern city of Gao has spiralled into chaos since rebels took control of the city five days ago. Many residents feel trapped between groups of looters, fundamentalist preachers and separatist fighters. Two of our Observers from the city gave us their account. One fled the city while the other stayed behind.
 
One day after taking the Malian city of Kidal, separatist Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) rebels and Asnar Dine Islamist fighters marched into Gao, one of the largest towns in the country’s northeast, forcing the few remaining Malian troops to flee.
 
Almost immediately, residents witnessed looting and vandalism. Militia and ordinary citizens pillaged storage warehouses and the offices of local humanitarian organisations. Not a single government building was left unscathed. The city’s few Christian residents said they were threatened by “bearded, Arab-speaking men”, and several Christian organisations, including the headquarters of development-focused Caritas International, were looted. French Christian newspaper La Croix has reported that panicked parishioners are still hiding out in the city.

Meanwhile, Mali’s junta government on Wednesday denounced the Tuareg rebels and Islamist militants for committing “serious human rights abuses”, amid allegations of kidnap and rape.
 
Pitched against a backdrop of such violence, the MNLA and Islamist rebels have slowly tried to remake their image in the eyes of Gao’s residents. While the former group has taken to the radio waves to call for Tuareg independence in the Azawad region, the latter has portrayed itself as a security force intended to maintain public order, despite the fact that some militants participated in recent looting.
Contributors

“A group of armed men came to see me in my hospital bed and ordered me to get out of there”

RT is a Christian and was a civil servant in Gao until he fled the city on Sunday.
 
I’m currently hidden in a village with about a dozen Christians. We are heading south and trying to reach the capital, Bamako. All of my family lives there. We clearly couldn’t stay in a city that’s on its way to adopting Islamic law.
 
When the rebels arrived in Gao on Sunday, I was at the hospital, recovering from an operation. A group of men armed with rifles entered the building and, room by room, forced the injured to leave. They spoke Arabic and Tamashek [the Tuareg language]. One of them told me something in shaky French, and I understood I had to get out of there straight away. I didn’t even have time to gather my belongings or my medicine – I left in my hospital pyjamas and sandals. I immediately began to look for a way to leave the city. Several families were separated in the panic and are now looking for a way to reconnect.
 
“Nothing is left of Gao’s central administration”
 
I escaped by bus, where I ran into a Nigerian friend who owned a successful bar in central Gao. He told me that the militiamen had stormed his business and destroyed everything. Places offering entertainment were especially targeted by the Islamists.
 
 

“The rebels attack shops, then sell part of the loot to residents”

Maiga (not her real name) is an employee at a local non-governmental organisation (NGO).
 
I won’t leave. My whole family is here, including my children. Even if we left, where would we go?
 
It has been impossible to work since they invaded the city. Our facilities were looted; our computers and our cars were stolen by armed gangs. They then take the cars that they stole and resell them. There are even some zealous residents who tell rebels where the shops and wealthy homes are, so they can go loot. It’s total chaos, it’s hard to know who is on what side.
 
It’s getting harder and harder to find food. Markets are no longer open. Rebels attack shops, then sell part of the loot to residents.
 
“We don’t understand who we’re talking to, or who’s in charge”
 
I got caught in some crossfire on Saturday as I was heading to work, so since then, I have only been leaving home to go to the mosque, where we sometimes run into the Islamist rebels. They ask us how we are doing, if we need help. They try to make it clear that they’re here to watch over us. They have also posted men in strategic points of the city, like the water tower or the thermal energy plant. For the last three days, they’ve even begun to crack down on looting. If you go to them about a theft, they will track the person down. [According to an eyewitness interview with Radio France International, the Islamists have returned stolen objects to their owners after asking them to shout, ‘God is Great!’ Also, since the Malian military’s retreat, rebels have pressed Gao’s residents to tell them the whereabouts of soldiers hiding out in the city in plainclothes].
 
It’s going to be extremely difficult to move forward after what happened. In the case of my NGO, we've lost 15 years of work and archives. There wasn’t this much chaos even during the uprising of the 1990s.
 
 
Written in collaboration with Ségolène Malterre, France 24 journalist.
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