Caught between a distant government in Bamako and an Islamist rebel movement in their home region, Mali’s minority Tuaregs face an uncertain future.
GAO, MALI: “I never supported them, but many of my friends did,” says Aljimit. It is early afternoon, and we are taking refuge in a straw hut from heat that reaches 110 degrees F.
Aljimit is a light-skinned ethnic Tuareg, and he is talking about the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a local separatist rebel group led by Tuaregs. Last year, the MNLA briefly gained control of parts of northern Mali. Its aims have been a Tuareg homeland and territory, not jihad, like the groups that came later.
We are sitting in Gao, the largest urban area in northern Mali – although in the aftermath of a war that brought French troops and airstrikes, the streets in Aljimit’s neighborhood are lifeless.
“They are all gone,” he whispers under a typical indigo turban fabric that covers most of his face. “I don’t think they will ever be back,” he says of the many Tuaregs and Arabs who used to populate this area.
As we eat dates and drink small, sugary cups of mint tea – a beverage that Tuaregs prepare with a devotion that borders on religious ritual – Aljimit recounts the rise and fall of Tuareg nationalism that was personified here by the MNLA.
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