New York City’s "Little Africa" neighborhood is home to thousands of Malian-Americans, who must watch from afar as their homeland is ravaged by separatist violence and uncertainty. Every night, about 20 of them gather at a community center to participate in an Internet conference call in which news from home is broadcast and discussed, and concerns about loved ones back home can be shared face-to-face.
The West African nation of Mali is more than 7,000 kilometers away from where the Malian Association of New York arranges the conference call. But the ongoing separatist insurrection fueled by rival Islamic factions is still very real for those gathered at this community center.
For Doumbouya Ibrahim, whose cousins live not far from the fighting, uncertainty about the outcome of the conflict is taking a huge emotional toll.
“… because we know the beginning of the war, but nobody knows the end of the war,” he said.
In March 2012, when Islamist rebels overran the vast northern desert region of northern Mali, they proclaimed an independent state. Some began to persecute those of non-Islamic faiths, as well as other Muslims who did not practice their extreme interpretation of Islam. Doumbouya Ibrahim is outraged and says he fears for Mali’s more moderate Muslim community.
“I am Muslim, born Muslim; my great-great grandparents, they [are] all Muslim. We are Christians over there too," he said. "We don’t want people to come over there to try to divide people by force. Because the Quran never say you have to force somebody to become Muslim. They are forcing people to become Muslim. If you refuse to do what they want, they can cut [off] your hand or your feet. I don’t believe that is the way you should dictate your religion. So we don’t want those people over there.”
reported widespread human rights abuses by the rebels, including summary executions and the use of child soldiers. Madoussou Traore is sickened by accounts of gang rape and other sexual violence.
“The Islamists or terrorists - I don’t know what to call them - they are raping the girls, young girls 13 years old, 14 years old," Traore said. "Oh, I am so sorry about that situation. It’s very terrible.”
Modibo Diakite’s family lives in the Malian capital, far south of the fighting. Still, he is worried and the unrest has already affected his family.
“I have brothers and sisters at 12 o’clock in the morning [midnight] or 1 o’clock in the morning, they look around in the house and see if everyone is safe," he said. "If there is nobody hiding behind the house. Everyone is afraid now. This is terrorism. My brother told me one time he heard about 10 kilometers from his house, someone stop him in his car and take him out of his car by gunpoint. Those things, we don’t know them before.
And, knowing all of this and being so far away is difficult.
"I am very concerned because, even [though] I am here many, many years, I am very concerned [for] the safety of my family," Diakite said. "Because I am part of them. I think about them; they are still in my life. If they are not safe, I will not be safe.
Recently, French and African military intervention has routed the rebels from their northern strongholds. Still, the fighting continues. And while it is uncertain how the conflict in Mali will play out over the coming weeks and months, its human cost will continue to be of urgent personal concern to the Malian community in New York, and elsewhere in the African diaspora.