By Claire Heyison
After the death of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi on October 20th, 2011, Tuareg fighters, who had assisted his forces, returned to Mali, bringing hi-tech weaponry and military training along with them. The Tuaregs, a nomadic ethnic minority in Saharan Africa, were allegedly promised $10,000 to join Qaddafi’s forces during the Libyan civil war. The recent breakdown of the truce between the Tuareg group, the MNLA (Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad), and the Malian government is largely attributed to the return of these Tuareg mercenaries.
Fighting between the MNLA, and Malian government forces resumed on January 17th, after two and a half years of ceasefire following a 2009 agreement that had halted a decades-long Tuareg rebellion.
The resurgent fighting has spurred mass emigration from Mali to neighboring countries. In the past three weeks, at least 10,000 people are reported to have crossed to Niger, 9,000 to Mauritania, and 3,000 to Burkina Faso, according to reports from the International Committee for the Red Cross. Many of those who fled to Niger were Nigerian nationals who have lived in Mali for decades. Most of the 10,000 have minimal access to shelter, clean water, food, and medicine, according to a spokesman for the UNHCR. However, the 3,000 Malians who crossed the border to Burkina Faso have largely been successful in finding lodging with host families.
The crisis in Mali has been largely overshadowed in the media by violence in Syria, the consolidation of Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, demonstrations in Russia and primary elections in the United States. However, though international news media attention may be temporarily diverted, international aid is forthcoming. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has deployed aid missions to assist the 20,000 refugees uprooted by violence in the Azawad region of northern Mali.
Meanwhile, the medical charity Doctors of the World pulled out of northern Mali on February 7th, fearing the safety of its workers.
Violence between the Tuaregs and the Malian government has reflected ethnic tensions between northerners and southerners, as well as perceived marginalization of the Tuareg community by the southern government. The MLNA hopes to create an independent state in the region of Azawad, whose large Tuareg population makes it distinct from the rest of Mali. Though the Tuaregs have previously fought for the independence of Azawad (notably in the 1960s and 1990s), this latest resurgence is marked by the MLNA’s unprecedented military and technological sophistication, believed to be a consequence of weapon-smuggling from Qaddafi’s arsenal.
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