In less than one week, Kalifa Traoré has been forced to abandon his home and flee his beloved city. Now the 46-year-old local assemblyman is in danger of losing the guiding principle that has held his country together for more than 50 years.
A native of Mopti, the central Malian city just south of Timbuktu, which fell from government control over the weekend, Traoré fled his hometown for the capital of Bamako on April 3 as rebels advanced southward.
For more than half a century, Mali's national motto has proudly proclaimed, "Un peuple, un but, une foi", or "One people, one goal, one faith".
But the unity of this sprawling, sparsely populated West African nation has been severely threatened by Friday's declaration of independence by a Tuareg rebel group that has seized control - in some uncertain form - of northern Mali.
Friday's independence declaration by the Tuareg separatist group, the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad), has sent Kalifa Traoré into a state of frenzied hyperactivity.
Hours after media organisations were reporting the news, Traoré was wielding newspapers detailing rebel atrocities in the north and showing the stories to anyone who would listen, as his two cell phones trilled constantly.
“Mali is an indivisible country, it cannot be divided, it has been one sovereign nation since 1960,” he said referring to the year the country gained independence from France. “This is a very serious threat, very serious,” he repeats.
For Traoré, the independence declaration is not just an abstract principle, it affects his security and that of his family.
Khalifa Traoré, 46, is a local assembly representative from the central Malian city of Mopti, south of the rebel-controlled city of Timbuktu. Fearing for his and his family's safety, Traoré fled Mopti for Bamako earlier this month. (Photo: L. Jacinto/ France 24)
Khalifa Traoré, 46, is a local assembly representative from the central Malian city of Mopti (Click to enlarge)
“I was scared. I have four children – two boys and two girls. I fled Mopti with my family and came to Bamako. I'm living here with my relatives. My house is locked, I cannot go back because they are terrorizing the people. The MNLA, the Islamists, al Qaeda – they are terrorizing us. In Gao (a rebel-held northern Malian city) women are being raped by the MNLA people. The MNLA say they are from the north. But we are from the north too and we want to belong to an undivided Mali.”
Following an internationally condemned March 22 military coup against ousted President Amadou Toumani Tourré, the chronically weak Malian army lost control of the northern parts of the country to an unlikely alliance of secular Tuareg rebels and radical Islamists, forming a perfect storm of crises for this impoverished West African nation.
The MNLA has been trying to distance itself from militant Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine and al Qaeda's North Africa branch, also known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
But Traoré is having none of it. “They are Islamists, they are al Qaeda,” he insists. “They are imposing sharia law in the northern cities. I'm a Muslim, but that is my faith. In politics, I want a secular country. We Malians want a secular country. We don't want sharia law, where people's hands are cut off and women are stoned – that is barbaric.”
As a man arrives bearing a tray of sickly sweet tea, Traoré launches into a sincere appeal. “I call upon the international community – the UN, the EU, ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] - for a military intervention as soon as possible. This is urgent, it must be done quickly, quickly.”
Fighting for unity
In the heart of the Malian capital, under a towering column bearing the map of the African continent, dozens of youths gather under the unremitting noonday sun as Moah Amadou Coulibaly addresses the crowd.
“For the liberation of northern Mali,” he shouts into a cordless microphone. "Yes, yes," chants the crowd, the women's voices amazingly drowning out the men.
Rousing speech delivered, Coulibaly, a 23-year-old university student, steps off the hastily erected stage and takes the time to explain his views.
“If the military can't fight, we are ready to fight for our country,” he says gravely. “We are young, we can fight. We have recently formed a youth association called Youth for the Liberation of Mali and we want to fight against the rebels.”
In this dusty, muggy West African city, there's plenty of talk about taking up arms against the rebels in the north.
There are also plenty of new organisations and associations sprouting up at various street corners. Traoré, for instance, is one of the founding members of COREN (Le Collectif des Resortissants du Nord Mali) a newly-formed collective of northern Malians displaced by the fighting.
One of the goals of the organisation, he reveals, is to “organise a militia here in Bamako, which can be trained by the Malian army. We are not trained to fight, but we have a high morale and we have to act. We can't wait for ECOWAS,” he said, referring to the West African bloc that is currently examining a military plan of action. “We are calling on our brothers in the south to join us in our struggle.”
Traoré dismisses concerns that armed, pro-government militias could violently divide an already divided nation. “We won't be fighting against the people. We will fight against the rebels, we will help the government. We have to fight for unity.”