This blog is part one of a ‘trilogy’ in which I express my surprise and sadness about irrelevance of human lives by the big players in this world. It makes me wonder if it is not time to unite with people who feel the same and start to say something about what is happening. These three blogs are therefore also an invitation to share more stories about disposable people in 2018.
Meeting with herdsmen and owners of cattle in Mali is an emotional encounter. For them especially for what they are living through, but also for me. Why? Because I can situate all their stories in a history of visiting and being warmly received by the herders and farmers in Mali, since 1987. In 2016 I joined a research project that tries to understand the recent conflict affecting their lives. I meet the herders now in Bougouni, in Bamako, as displaced people and as prisoners, as people being disposed off, as people without value for the modern Malian state.
My last stay in Mali was 13-26 August this year.
The sons of our main interlocutors, then, are now in prison. They are accused of being jihadists. The family and friends of colleague researchers are affected, their villages burnt, people are killed, and even mass graves are found. Most victims mentioned in these reports are part of the herders’ group. But there are also atrocities in farmer’s villages, Dogon and Bambara. The ethnic war in Central Mali has become a sad reality. And in the coming months it is feared that the situation will worsen: more displaced people, more empty villages, more deaths, food crisis.
The result of the 2012 ‘occupation’ of central and northern Mali is a chaotic internal war. This year it has already caused the death of maybe over 1000 people, but figures cannot be verified. It forced people to leave their homes and search for a place elsewhere. Numbers of internally displaced people are not known, but their numbers are growing.
In Bougouni in the south, two hours drive from Bamako one family who hosts refugees saw the numbers grow from 3 end of June to 29 families in mid-August; and the woman of the family receiving these displaced assures us that more will be coming; in Bamako the capital city displaced people house in dilapidated houses without official recognition, but with help of families, associations, and individuals. Herders are nomads and to become visible as displaced is not evident. Moving with the herds is after all the main survival strategy. So many families will move in crisis but as nomads, not spotted by NGOs or the State. The displaced families that we meet are mainly recognized as such because they have to ask for aid, as all their cattle was stolen, killed or otherwise, and in many stories the burning of villages is a recurrent theme. Also in Bankass the numbers of people who flee their villages are growing and among them increasingly also Dogon.
A strange war is going on in Mali. It is an amalgam of different conflicts and involvement of various actors, and violence has moved from the North to the Centre, where most deaths are counted (for now). In Mali this internal war is silenced as much as possible, or presented as separate ‘conflicts’ in different sub regions and preferably with a reference to herder-farmer conflicts. News in international circles is of recent date, only appearing after the presidential elections that were held in July and August. Did they avoid publishing before that time to not jeopardize the sitting president? In social media news circles like Taabital Pulaaku’s FaceBook, or in protest from diaspora Malians, concepts like genocide have gradually come into use. How disturbing such nominations may seem they might be necessary to wake up the (inter)national community. But in doing so the FB pages of other associations (like Kisal, Pinal Pulaaku, Dogon vision) risk accusations of being propagandistic. Analysis of these pages does indeed show ups and downs in the neutrality of the formulations. It is not easy to keep outside the positions, as the oppositions between ethnic groups have become a fact.
My confusion is about research in conflict situations. Is it arrogant to try to understand situations that are so complex and that demand so many lives; that are ‘unknowable‘ in their complexities? Who am I to embark on the knowing of the unknowable?. But on the other hand, every attention for these situations that are not only unknowable but also not seen is good. That is why I dare to write about it, even if I know that I do not know.
Creation of oppositions
It is difficult to stay neutral in the conflict. The oppositions are so outspoken. At least that is what has become. The old presumed cleavages between ethnic groups have become the kernel of clashes, killings etc. It is almost impossible to deny the politicization of these clashes. Of course the oppositions did exist, and do exist. It is a historical given that herders and farmers have to live together despite themselves. Their uses of resources are complementary and opposed. With the increasing problems of management, due to expansion of the population, ecological problems, increasing land-use by business and big urban entrepreneurs, it seems unavoidable that problems intensify, but these could have been contained if the political will would have been there. Somehow the conflict serves a purpose.
That is how the idea of disposable people is not too strange. As was suggested by a ‘critical’ citizen analyst in Mali: they want to empty the land that is needed for other purposes. It would not be the first time that a State disposes of its people for economic reasons. The other cynism is that those, who do most of the fighting are originally funded by the Malian government. Among Fulbe young men who joined the various armed groups (including Jihadist groups) are also those who were part of the militias that were funded by the government to fight the Tamacheq, that was in 2012 and 2013; the Dozo who are fighting against the so-called jihadist Fulbe (but who confuse them with ordinary citizens) are said to be armed by the state and also in some instances they are military in Dozo attire. Both in the interviews and comments on FB these stories appear. Another rumor is that also the international powers see profit in the chaos and will not really help to stop this. A recent report by the UN states that some actors who were united around the table to come to an agreement are also involved in criminal networks whose economy is worth milliards of dollars.
These cynic ways are increasingly part of patterns in the wars in the Sahel region and can only be continued by defining a sea of disposable people; people who have been the guardians of the Sahel regions for centuries, but whose paths are clashing with the paths of modernizing and criminalizing states.