Michael Shaikh, director of country operations for Center for Civilians in Conflict, and Sam Hendricks, a consultant for the CIVIC, were in Mali this month speaking with civilians about the current conflict and the challenges they face. In this post we hear from Hamidou, a schoolteacher in Mali’s Mopti region, who shared his experience of the crisis.

“The fall of Konna to the rebels was like a joke to us. We couldn’t believe such a thing could happen here.”

These are the words of Hamidou, who recently spoke to a CIVIC team in nearby Sévaré, in the region of Mopti, about 400 miles from the Malian capital of Bamako.

“Everything started with the MNLA and Azawad,” he says, referring to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the territory of northern Mali claimed as an independent state by separatist rebels.

After an alliance of MNLA and Islamist fighters overran the towns of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao in March 2012, many residents in nearby Konna left, fearing they would be next. Konna became the first line of defense against the rebels’ further incursion to the south and the Malian government deployed two army units to protect the town.

Hamidou, a schoolteacher, explains that living conditions under the Malian army presence made life difficult. “The army were making a mess,” he says. “They occupied two school buildings, so that the schools had to close. We asked the military to leave our school so we could organize final exams,” he continues. “But they wouldn’t allow it.”

Hamidou eventually left Konna for the town of Sévaré, about 30 miles further south, but he kept in contact with relatives and returned regularly to visit his hometown. People were very aware, Hamidou says, of what had happened in Timbuktu and Gao after the MNLA and Islamist forces took over. It meant immediate imposition of Sharia law and harsh treatment for offenders.

“We knew that if Konna falls, they’ll come here [to Sévaré] and eventually to Bamako.”

By January 7, the Islamists had arrived in Konna to challenge the Malian army. He describes several days of fighting, with shooting and heavy artillery landing in the town. When the news came that Konna had fallen to the rebels on January 10, there was a sense of shock. “Even among some of the military,” Hamidou says, “there was a feeling that Mali had been sold [to the Islamists].”

The fall of Konna caused many to flee the town of Sévaré. “There were huge lines at all the gas stations,” he says. “The price of gas went from CFA 600 per liter to about CFA 2000 [the equivalent of 1.8 USD per liter to about 4 USD] in three hours.”

“Sévaré became a ghost town.”

The turning point came, Hamidou says, when two large military planes landed at the airport in Sévaré. “We didn’t know where they came from, but we knew they were here to help. We all felt it was the beginning of the end.”

“Malian military checkpoint popped up on our street corner almost immediately,” he says. “We felt something had changed dramatically.”

The planes would turn out to be the first signs of the French intervention, which commenced airstrikes on Konna in advance of ground forces. But it would be a week before the Malian army retook full control of the town.

In the meanwhile, Hamidou’s father, still in Konna, had fallen seriously ill. As the army continued battling remnants of the occupation, Hamidou’s father passed away.

“My father died on Monday morning,” he says. “We tried to get to Konna to attend the burial, but the army didn’t allow any movement in or out of Konna. Even the top military commander [in Konna] knew about my father’s death,” he says. “But they wouldn’t make any exception.”

He had no choice but to turn around.

“There were signs of fighting all along the road to Konna,” he says. “There were shells on the ground, and grenades. We took some pictures and video, and went back to Sévaré.”

He says he later heard that one person had picked up an unexploded grenade. As he was showing it to some other people, it blew up. The handler and four onlookers were killed.

There was also news that a woman was killed in her home by an airstrike, along with her four children. Hamidou was unsure if the woman had other family in town, or if they could be reached.

He is also unsure about the future of his country.

“I am pessimistic,” he says. “In Bamako, the army are fighting amongst themselves, and it’s the foreigners who are coming to save us. We’ve made corruption and favoritism a way of life,” he says.

“What can a blind snake do? It can only pray it will find something,” he says. “We are believers, and so we pray.”

Image courtesy of Mary Newcombe