Exclusive images from northern Mali: Gao’s youth side with Islamists

 
FRANCE 24 has been sent exclusive images of a youth protest in Gao, in northern Mali, which took place late last month. A large group of young people went out to protest against the separatist, Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Organised by a resistance group called “We’re not moving”, the June 26 march was joined by Islamist fighters from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).
 
This protest followed the fatal shooting of a teacher the night before. As is often the case with violent incidents that occur in Gao these days, many people accused the MNLA of carrying out the shooting. MUJWA, which has connections to AQMI (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), also blamed the MNLA for the shooting. The MUJWA Islamists and the MNLA Tuareg separatists had shared joint control of Gao since the end of March.
 
Flanked by members of the Islamist movement, the city’s young people marched to the administrative buildings that the MNLA had been using as its headquarters. Violent fighting broke out between MUJWA and the Tuareg separatists, and the MNLA was eventually forced out of the city.
 
This footage was filmed by a local resident in Gao and sent to France 24 via an Observer based in Bamako. During the last few seconds of the video, the fighting between the MNLA and MUJWA at the MNLA headquarters can be heard in the distance.
 
The footage shows young people of all ages armed with clubs, sticks, and sometimes even machetes, protesting against the MNLA Tuaregs and shouting “Down with Azawad”, “Long live Mali”, and “God is great”. On several occasions they are seen talking to the MUJWA Islamists. At the beginning of the video, a group of young people cheer as several armed men go past on a MUJWA pick-up truck. Seconds later, a crowd gathers around Abdul Hakim, the leader of MUJWA in Gao. They nod in approval at what he’s saying, and as he gets into his 4x4 he can be heard saying “Let me speak to these dogs!” (Editor’s note: this is undoubtedly a reference to the MNLA).
 
Since they arrived in Gao at the end of March, the MUJWA Islamists have gradually gained the trust of the local residents. They are popular because they have reportedly been returning stolen goods to their rightful owners (the Tuaregs were usually blamed for the thefts) and distributing large amounts of money and weapons.
Contributors

"Young people have volunteered to protect the city"

Hamma Biamoye, a teacher in Gao, is one of the founders of the “We’re not moving” movement.
 
This has been the first week in a long time that we haven’t heard any gunfire. Since the MNLA left, life in Gao has gone back to normal. There’s no more looting, no more fighting [Editor’s note: most of the violent assaults committed in the last few weeks have been attributed to MNLA Tuareg fighters]. The Islamists have set up a camp outside the city and we see them driving around Gao in their trucks during the day. But for the moment, they are not causing any problems and everything is okay.
"We’ve set up a committee to keep watch on the city"
 
When the separatist, Tuareg-led rebels entered Gao at the end of March, many residents fled the city. These people ended up in refugee camps on the borders of Mali, living in terrible conditions. But some of us decided not to panic and stay in Gao. And that’s how the “We’re not moving” movement was born. Now we’re proud that we didn’t flee and chose instead to stay.
 
We’ve set up a patrol committee to keep watch on the city. The MUJWA Islamists have their own police force but we too want to ensure that local residents are safe. So in each neighbourhood there is a group of around 15 volunteers who are responsible for protecting their local area. If somebody is acting suspiciously, they arrest them and bring them to our headquarters. We detain them here while we try to ascertain if they have committed an offence. If we discover that they are a wanted criminal, we hand them over to MUJWA. As long as the Islamists don’t steal our possessions, we’re prepared to work with them.
 
"We are not pro-Sharia but we’d rather live alongside the Islamists than the Tuareg rebels"
 
We don’t want to see the strict application of Sharia law, such as whipping people in public, but we’d rather live alongside the Islamists than the MNLA. The Tuareg separatists want to divide Mali, but we don’t want an independent north. Although they have appropriated this region for their cause, they aren’t representative of people from northern Mali. [Only 10% of Mali’s population of 14 million belongs to the Tuareg community or other ethnic groups of Berber origin. Likewise, in the north of the country, the Tuareg community remains a minority.]
 
We want to see life return to normal throughout the north. We hope that the Islamists will agree to leave the cities of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu before ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] decides to intervene.
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Peggy Bruguière.
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