Malians and the world have watched with surprise as three major cities in northern Mali fell to rebels in just the past few days. But a soldier just back from the front lines says the swift advance by Tuareg separatists should be a surprise to no one, given the state of the Malian army.
Corruption and deception at the highest levels of government and the military left front-line soldiers nearly defenseless, a soldier just back from northern Mali told VOA. He says he saw combat in several towns, including Ménaka, Tessalit, and most recently Gao, home of the army’s largest northern base, which fell to the Tuareg rebels on Saturday.
The soldier, who does not want his name used, says that one good thing to come out of the March 22 coup d’état is that the Malian government’s abysmal response to the Tuareg rebellion is coming to light.
In the weeks leading up to the coup, Malians were increasingly critical of what they saw as a feeble response on the part of President Amadou Toumani Touré. But some also denounced soldiers, questioning whether their heart was in the fight.
The soldier said that early on in this rebellion, the Malian people thought that the government gave us the means to fight but that we refused to fight. Now they understand, he said, that in reality we were never given the means. We were not afraid of combat, he said. Now that the people are beginning to understand this even gives us the motivation to go and fight again.
He said when soldiers detained top-level officials, revelations began to surface about how corruption and conflicts of interest got in the way of the battle.
He said he saw the recent defection of Colonel Major El Hadj Ag Gamou as a vindication. He said soldiers warned their superiors several times that Gamou could not be trusted, but he said the warnings were ignored. Some superiors dismissed them as prejudice against Gamou, a Tuareg.
Hundreds of soldiers and civilians have arrived in the capital Bamako from Gao in the past two days.
Diarra Seydou was one of hundreds of people who made the 1,200-kilometer trek. VOA talked with several people on a bus as it approached Bamako after about 24 hours on the road. "The army didn't have the wherewithal. So when the rebels arrived, soldiers had already given in, for lack of the means to fight," he said.
This woman, seated on the bus with an infant in her lap, did not want to give her name. Coming to tears, she pleads with coup leader Amadou Sanogo to step aside. "If Sanogo has come to help us, let him quit now so the international community could help us. Let him quit power, in the name of God, in the name of his mother and his father. He should think of the people who are in the north. He should leave the way for the international community help us. What we have gone through, if he had lived through that, or his wife had lived through that, he would step aside," she said.
The woman was on a bus carrying about 60 people fleeing Gao after it fell to the rebels. Children were quiet and the men and women looked angry and traumatized. They said Tuareg rebels did not go after civilians, but people fled because of the constant weapons fire and rampant looting. People said they cannot stay in a town that has been decimated.
Riders on the bus worried about how people left behind will cope. Cissé Oumou Touré, a midwife, said "The situation is very, very critical. If transport companies could send more buses to go get these people who are left behind in Gao, that's what we want. These elderly and sick people who are still back there...and there are absolutely no health services, no support for them, nothing."
Humanitarian groups who have long worked in northern Mali are facing unprecedented problems reaching people in need. Steven Anderson is spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross for North and West Africa, which has been distributing food and other relief supplies to families displaced by the unrest. ICRC provided help recently to some 29,000 people in the area of Menaka alone.
"Unfortunately we’ve had to temporarily suspend most of our operations in the north of Mali. There are tens of thousands of displaced people who are really in a very serious critical humanitarian situation and they really need urgently to receive assistance," he said.
To get aid to the people, agencies must work with local authorities. But who are local authorities in the chaos that is now northern Mali? "The situation is insecure and pretty unclear in terms of who’s who and who is where. What really needs to be done now is to identify the people that we need to talk to in order to re-establish a dialogue," said Anderson.
On Monday evening Malians gasped when they heard that the regional bloc ECOWAS was going ahead with harsh economic sanctions. The landlocked country replenishes food supplies and other goods through neighboring countries' ports and cross-border trade.
The move added to the uncertainty enveloping Mali, a country where no government, no force, no institution appears to be in control.