Jubilation in Timbuktu —and ethnic cleansing

French President François Hollande made what the New York Times called a “triumphant” visit to Timbuktu Feb. 2, “receiving a rapturous welcome from thousands of people who gathered in a dusty square next to a 14th century mosque to dance, play drums and chant, ‘Vive la France!’ The muezzin of the mosque, whose singing calls residents to pray five times a day, wore a scarf in the colors of the French flag around his neck, as he shouted, ‘Vive Hollande!'” There is no point pretending this didn’t happen, or that the jubilation is not authentic. But the Times account does not mention the sinister underside to northern Mali’s liberaiton.

Last night, the BBC World Service broadcast amazing audio footage of a house party in Timbuktu, where the city’s musicians gathered to rock’n’roll again after months of jihadist-enforced silence—a scene reminiscent of similar celebrations in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. But then the announcer mentioned that this party was taking place in the home of a local Arab, who had been forced to flee—just one instance of widespread looting in the city since the jihadists fell. BBC News reported Jan. 31: “Dozens of people were out in the streets breaking into shops owned by ethnic Arabs and Tuaregs, whom they accuse of having collaborated with the militant Islamists.”

A report from the independent UN news agency IRIN Jan. 31 also notes:

Ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs in towns across central and northern Mali, including Gao and Timbuktu, have been fleeing into the desert or to neighbouring countries as their houses and shops are looted or they are hunted down on suspicion of being Islamist militants. Fears of inter-communal violence are spreading…

Moulaye Cherif Haïdara, a Malian journalist with national media bureau ORTM, told IRIN from Timbuktu: “Almost all of the Arabs have fled Timbuktu, fearing reprisal attacks. Many here believe Arabs were complicit with the Islamist groups who terrorized populations over recent months.”

Two Malians of Arab origin were badly beaten up on the outskirts of Timbuktu when attempting to flee, he said. Malian military leaders are trying to control the situation. Col Keba Sangaré, who is heading Malian operations in Timbuktu, gathered residents in the market-place: “Not all Arabs are rebels. Be careful. Do not take all Arabs and Tuaregs to be associated with jihadist groups. Be tolerant and patient and let the army and the authorities deal with this problem.”

In Gao most of the shops run by Arabs have been shut. Three men found hiding under a tarpaulin in the market-place were reportedly beaten up and left for dead. The mayor, upon returning to town, appealed for peace, telling a reporter from Le Monde: “I am a Peulh, but I cannot live without the Arabs or Tuaregs.” Local radio station Radio Koima is also trying to appeal for reason, reportedly warning people to report any suspected Islamists to the authorities, and not to take the law into their own hands.

We’d certainly like to believe that the authorities are trying to rein in the reprisals, but we aren’t sure how the claim squares with reports that Malian army troops have themselves attacked Arab and Tuareg civilians in the drive on the north—of which the International Criminal Court has taken note.

Another IRIN report states that the Malian government has estabished a hotline to report suspected jihadists, and a “network of informants.” But: “Some say they fear the line is being used too hastily, and many Peulhs and Tuaregs are fleeing the towns of Diabaly, Konna and Douentza, afraid of being seen as infiltrators.” The Peuls, or Fulani, were actually persecuted by the jihadists, but some alienated Peul youth were nonetheless recruited into the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

Hollande is assuring that the French will shortly withdraw, and turn policing of northern Mali over to an African force. “[W]e do not have the intention of staying, because our African friends will carry on the work we have done so far,” he was quoted by Al Jazeera Feb. 2. “And then ECOWAS and Malians will ensure the security of the entirety of the Malian territory.” But if ethnic war ensues, we wonder if it will be so easy for the French to leave… or if things will be any better if ECOWAS and the Malian forces are left to oversee ethnic cleansing…