As French and Malian forces battle al Qaida-linked rebels in Mali, reports are emerging of horrific human rights abuses and rapes committed there by the rebel soldiers — leading to widespread fears that hundreds of thousands of refugees will flee to neighboring countries.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, some estimates predict up to 700,000 people will flee Mali in the next few months, most of them afraid of what will happen if they encounter the rebels. This is in addition to the 376,000 Malians who fled the turmoil during the past year —including 147,000 who went to Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. The Malian government estimates 229,000 are displaced within the country.
The refugees interviewed by U.N. workers describe an extremely disturbing and confounding interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. In a report by the U.N. Human Rights Council, a case is cited of a 22-year-old woman raped by six armed men for not wearing a veil in her home — leading one to wonder how a strict reading of Islam could conclude that sexual violence was the proper response.
The report also said girls as young as 12 had been forced to marry members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other militant groups, and then subjected to days of gang rape before being abandoned after a “divorce.”
Earlier this week, French soldiers realized they would have a more difficult time than they thought rooting out rebels from the town of Diabaly, where they are hiding in plain sight by blending in with the villagers.
The standoff pointed to the likelihood that France’s engagement in Mali would probably be longer and bloodier than any of the officials in Paris anticipated, particularly after the early success last week chasing the rebels with air raids and bombs. But after the rebels took the town of Diabaly, about 250 miles north of the capital city of Bamako, French and Malian forces closed in on the town to expel them. But as they encircled the village, they had to identify the rebels among the civilians.
“It’s a very specialized kind of war,” a Malian colonel told The New York Times. “The town is surrounded.”
The French and Malian combined force is waiting to be joined by soldiers from neighboring countries such as Nigeria, Niger, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.