It took Ibrahim Touré three weeks to escape from Timbuktu after rebels seized the desert town, but, in his heart, he hasn’t really left. The 26-year-old shopkeeper studies the floor as he talks, cradling a welter of scabs and fresh scar tissue on his right elbow. Sometimes he stops to rub his head with an uncertain hand — the unforgiving sun, maybe, or a reaction to the horrors he has witnessed and suffered. If what he says is true, then the fog of war in northern Mali — where Tuareg separatists, Islamic militants, Arab militias and a hodgepodge of terrorist groups are vying for control following a spectacularly successful military campaign — is concealing a grisly spate of human-rights abuses, humanitarian suffering and war crimes.
The shadows were lengthening one Friday after mosque, he relates, when he saw three truckloads of gunmen from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) pounce on two young women. One was an old school friend called Isata, Touré says — a girl who was “always laughing.” The rebels fired wildly in the air and stuck a gun in her face. Hidden in a nomad’s tent, Touré felt his guts contort as he watched them rape her. “I didn’t think these kinds of things could happen in reality,” he says. After the gunmen left the two violated women on the ground, other women went to comfort them. Isata “couldn’t even talk,” says Touré. “Her whole face was destroyed where they’d hit her. There was blood everywhere.”
Touré’s own problems were just beginning. As he surveyed the ruins of his electronics shop days later — looted, he reckons, by MNLA fighters — Islamic militants from a faction called Ansar Eddine took issue with his livelihood. Spotting a computer, they asked him what he wanted with a white man’s things. They knocked him to his knees, gripped his hands and held a flaming torch to his arm. Someone struck him on the leg with a knife. “I was so scared,” he says. “I can’t remember what happened after that.” Hungry, wounded and destitute, Touré has wound up on a dusty sidewalk in Mali’s capital, Bamako, one of hundreds of people arriving each day on overcrowded buses from the country’s disintegrating north. His nephews Oussman and Hamar (ages 12 and 5) lie in the dirt nearby. Their mother died about a month ago from “sickness and starvation.” Continue reading