Islamists pickup trucks destroyed during aerial strikes in Diabaly on Jan. 21, 2013. French and Malian troops earlier today entered Diabaly, which has been the theatre of air strikes and fighting since being seized by Islamists a week ago.
Rebels who had conquered northern Mali offered to pay the equivalent of $14 for a 13-year-old girl. When her family said no, they took her anyway.
Malian men take part in a meeting of residents from Northern Mali, in Bamako on April 4, 2012. The placard reads "No to rape". Photographer: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images
A week later, she died in captivity, after she was repeatedly raped by a group of armed men.
That incident in April is one of hundreds of documented cases compiled by the United Nations in the past year that shed light on the sexual violence unleashed by insurgents -- mostly Touareg separatists rather than al-Qaeda-linked Islamists -- during their occupation of a sparsely populated and inhospitable Mali region the size of Texas.
Nine months later, the rebels have melted away into the desert as French intervention troops advance. For the women of the farming and cattle-herding communities, the prospect is that yet another peace deal will ignore the record of rape used as a weapon of war.
Slideshow:UN to Mull Peacekeeping Mission in Mali
“The question of sexual violence is not treated as an urgent question, unfortunately,” Hannah Armstrong, an analyst on security in West Africa. The same Touareg fighters now clamoring for negotiations “carried out raid-style attacks during which animals were stolen, slave-caste women raped repeatedly,” she said in an interview in Bamako, the Malian capital.
A total of 211 cases of sexual violence -- including gang rape, sexual slavery, forced marriages and torture -- were committed during house-to-house operations or at checkpoints during 2012, according to the Office of the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.
The cases, which have not been made public, were verified over the course of a two-week fact-finding mission in November, when a UN official met in person with witnesses and survivors of sexual assault. Their names were withheld out of concern for their safety as the perpetrators still held the affected areas.
Only a handful of peace agreements address such crimes. The likelihood is that in Mali conflict-related sexual violence will be brushed aside, as has happened in Libya since the fighting that toppled and killed dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
A further complication is that those held responsible for the worst abuses against women are young Touareg men of Malian origin who rescinded their claims of independence and are now making peace overtures. The separatist rebel group that unleashed the chaos, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known by its French acronym MNLA, lost control over its militants soon after it occupied the north and its fighters were seen attacking their own people.
During the rebellion, traditional patterns of subjugation reemerged with most of the reported abuses occurring after the armed groups seized Gao on March 31 and a day later when they took the fabled capital of the North, Timbuktu.
A 36-year-old woman in Gao was raped in her home by two light-skinned, turban-wearing men speaking Tamacheq, the language spoken by Touareg, according to an account told to UN officials. They broke into her house to demand money and gold ornaments and came in a Toyota Hilux pickup truck flying a yellow, black, red and green flag used by MNLA.
A nomadic people who have roamed the sand dunes of the Sahara for millennia, the Touareg have been romanticized as the “blue men of the desert” for their indigo-dyed cotton robes. In their quest to gain independence for northern Mali, they joined forces with extremist groups such as Ansar Dine, led by a dissident Touareg commander turned radical Islamist, only to be pushed aside later.
The MNLA is now courting the Malian authorities and offering to support the French military push.
“From our point of view, the French army should not get involved with them and we’ve cautioned them against collaborating,” the UN director of Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, said in a Jan. 28 telephone interview while on a mission in Mali to report on human-rights abuses.
Still, the MNLA’s exclusion from the negotiating table may hobble efforts to find a long-term solution for itinerant tribes that have staged numerous uprisings amid complaints that their region was ignored by the central government.
“There should be some kind of acknowledgment of the abuses the MNLA committed as that would go some way to introducing the notion that they have a credible political leadership,” said Armstrong, a specialist in the Sahel region, a semi-arid strip of land that spans Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria.
The assaults on women in northern Mali also reveal remnants of a culture of slavery, nominally abolished in 1960 when the country gained its independence from France.
The acquisition of livestock and women through raids are part of the traditional Touareg style of warfare, while subjugation of people seen as low-caste is still considered acceptable among some families, according to Temedt, a Malian human-rights group that conducts anti-slavery advocacy.
Women and girls of the darker-skinned Bella community, whose people have historically been considered as slaves of the Touaregs, were in particular targeted by Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, a radical Islamist group that has many Touareg fighters in its ranks, according to UN experts who visited Mali during the turmoil and asked to not be identified because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
“Witnesses and victims from the Bella slave caste told me attackers and looters were Touaregs, not Islamists,” Armstrong said.
Parents were threatened to get then to hand over their daughters for marriage to members of these groups, which invariably led to rape, sexual enslavement and sometimes death, the UN experts said
In one incident, a 15-year-old girl was forced into marriage to Abdul Haqim, a military commander for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. Repeatedly raped for months by fighters in the militia base, she was released when she became pregnant, according to the UN investigators.
In Mali, based on cases reported by displaced survivors of sexual violence, rebels conducted “requisitions,” or the abduction of women and girls, from a district to spend the night in their camps. Each night a different district would be required to provide a number of women and girls to the rebels. This, UN officials say, would suggest it was a tactic to subjugate local populations that was condoned by top commanders.
“Conflict-related sexual violence is not specific to any era, culture or continent,” according to a 54-page guidebook for mediators produced last year by the UN. But it is “arguably more powerful and less expensive than a gun.”
In the case of the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo, sexual attacks provoke displacement to increase aggressors’ access to resources. Amid the warfare during the breakup of former Yugoslavia, such acts disrupted reproduction among targeted ethnic groups, interfering with population growth.
“Women in war-torn societies can face specific and devastating forms of sexual violence, which are sometimes deployed systematically to achieve military or political objectives,” according to UN Women, the UN office for gender equality and the empowerment of women.
While it’s undisputed that rape has been used in war since the earliest armies to instill fear and create ethnic divisions -- and continues in war zones such as Syria -- the view that sexual violence in conflicts is on the rise has been challenged.
A Human Security Report released in October by Canadian researchers said there was a “distortion of evidence” by aid agencies and the UN, which base their assertions on the “small number of countries afflicted by extreme levels of sexual violence.”
The “mainstream narrative associated with this advocacy exaggerates the prevalence of conflict-related rape,” according to the 132-page report by researchers affiliated with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
The UN Secretary-General’s office responded that accurate data collection is difficult and that the phenomenon leaves women afraid of being banished by their communities or facing reprisals in cultures where victims are urged to keep quiet.
One issue is the scarcity of women in mediation and monitoring teams. It would be easier to get female victims to open up to women than men in places where there is great gender disparity and rape carries a social stigma. Fewer than 3 percent of signatories to peace agreements are women, according to a UN Women report on the participation of women in peace processes.
Among the internal refugees in the capital, Bamako, some women also tell stories of rape and abuse, Violet Diallo, a British social worker, said in an interview.
“In the north, especially, it’s taboo to discuss anything that relates to sex.” said Diallo, who helps displaced women in Bamako. “What we hear is probably only the tip of the iceberg.”
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