Child soldiers who claim to belong to the MNLA march through Gossi on April 6 . Photo taken by one of our Observers in Mali.
In the past few days, there have been several reports of child soldiers among the ranks of the rebel militias who have taken control of northern Mali. Our Observers confirm this, and one has even sent us a photo showing young boys wearing uniforms and carrying firearms in the streets of Gossi.
Gossi, population 25,000, is located near Timbuktu. It was taken over by Tuareg separatist rebels from the National Azawad Liberation Movement (MNLA) last week. Local residents say Islamist rebels have also been spotted in Gossi, just like in other northern cities like Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
Several media reports have noted the presence of fighters younger than 18 in the ranks of the rebel militias spread throughout the region. A Timbuktu resident, contacted by RFI, said there were no policemen in the streets there, and that “little children” controlled the city. In Gao, one of our Observers also saw “very young boys in the ranks of the Tuaregs patrolling the streets in pick-up trucks.”
After two and a half months of fighting, the MNLA unilaterally declared the independence of Azawad, a territory roughly made up of three regions in north Mali, on Friday. This declaration was condemned by the international community.

“Children follow parents who have joined the rebellion”

Mohammed Dicko, who lives in Mali’s capital Bamako, provided the Observers Team with photos confirming the existence of child soldiers in Gossi, which his cousin took while fleeing the area last week.
My cousin said there were around 50 child soldiers in the Gossi region. In Fulani, we call them “guns at the navel”. For the last few days rumours have been flying around Bamako that young boys were taking part in the rebellion, but until now, no one was able to provide any proof to support these allegations. The photo was taken on Friday, April 6, on Gossi’s main market street. My cousin wanted to take another photo but the person who he with was afraid they would be noticed. One never knows how a child with a gun might react.
My cousin explained to me that he knew one of the two young boys he took a photo of and which fraction [groups of nomadic families who settle near a town or water source] he belonged to. Everyone knows everyone else in the Gossi region. One is maybe 13 years old and the other 14. He also told me about another child soldier who was barely 12 years old, which is the same age as his daughter. The other soldiers tried to dress him up in a uniform, but it was much too big for him. In the end, they let him keep his own clothes.
“It’s at the point where anyone can stumble across a young boy armed with a Kalashnikov on the corner of the street who will ask where you are going”
Many Tuareg adults in the area joined the rebel forces when the town was taken over. The children are merely following their parents or big brothers when they go on patrol. When a group of grown-up fighters stop at a commandeered home, it’s the children who scope out the area. It’s gotten to the point where anyone can stumble across a young boy armed with a Kalashnikov on the corner of the street who will ask where you are going.
Right now there are four different groups that lay down the law in the city of Gossi: roving groups of gangs, Arab militants who protect their peoples' business interests, Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels who claim to be a part of the MNLA. According to my cousin, the young boys seen in the photo told him they belonged to the MNLA too.


MNLA denies recruiting child soldiers

Mossa Ag Assarid, a spokesperson for the MLNA, told FRANCE 24 that it is impossible that the children seen in the images are a part of the movement because “no one under the age of 18 has entered the MNLA’s armed forces”.
“There are enough adult fighters to accomplish their mission”, he added.
According to Assarid, the photos “were staged to tarnish the movement’s image”.
Meanwhile, an unnamed MNLA general based in Timbuktu contradicted Assarid’s remarks to FRANCE 24, saying that it was possible child soldiers existed among the movement’s forces in Gossi, but clarifed that “the MNLA did not seek out single one of these recruits”.
The general went on to add that the current situation in the north was beginning to stabilise and that additional troops were expected in Gossi in the coming days to help restore order in the city.
“Obviously, we would prefer to place the children in schools”, he concluded.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ségolène Malterre.