Mali’s Fog of War: Refugees Tell of Terror, Hunger and Rape

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Fighters from the Islamist group Ansar Eddine stand guard during the handover of a Swiss female hostage outside Timbuktu, Mali, on April 24, 2012

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.”

(MORE: One Foreign Couple’s Escape from Timbuktu)

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.”

Stories like this are almost impossible to verify. TIME found no second source to confirm Touré’s pitiful tale. Timbuktu, so long the “mystic city” of Western imagination, has been largely isolated from the world since rebels put the Malian army to flight on April 1. Emboldened by the chaos, terrorists from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are said to be operating more freely, limiting the extent to which aid organizations can penetrate Mali’s hinterland. There are good reasons, too, to reserve judgment on what information does emanate from the north, not least because other parties to the conflict — the military regime in Bamako, for example — have an interest in playing up perceptions of rebel depredations. The truth, to borrow a metaphor from the limited literature on northern Mali, is “shrouded in a haze of dust.”

Nonetheless, every fugitive TIME spoke to in Bamako gave a consistent account of Tuareg separatists, prone to spouting lofty rhetoric of an independent homeland, robbing and raping the locals they went to liberate. In their wake, Islamic militants have begun enforcing God’s will over the barrel of a gun. Just off the bus from Timbuktu, one man claims that fundamentalists from Ansar Eddine established a court in Timbuktu. “They took some young people who were drinking alcohol and beat them with whips 100 times,” he says. As the MNLA set about providing a textbook example of how not to win hearts and minds, he says, Ansar Eddine tried to rein in the lawlessness, setting up a hotline for inhabitants to report abuses. “The MNLA are afraid of them,” he claims. The militants “are [now] in control. They smash hotels and Christian places, but they don’t hurt people.”

(MORE: Terror Stalks the Historic, Elusive City of Timbuktu)

Findings by researchers from Human Rights Watch bear out this picture of the descent into lawlessness after a blistering rebel advance on March 30 and April 1 effectively partitioned Mali. In a report published today, the group says: “Separatist Tuareg rebels, Islamist armed groups, and Arab militias who seized control of northern Mali in April 2012 have committed numerous war crimes, including rape, use of child soldiers, and pillaging of hospitals, schools, aid agencies, and government buildings.” It also blames Ansar Eddine of summarily executing two men, amputating the hand of an MNLA rebel and conducting public floggings, and says that Malian soldiers executed ethnic Tuaregs with no links to the rebellion. Its findings are based on over 100 interviews with victims, witnesses to abuses, notables, doctors and aid workers.

Where things go next in Mali is hard to say. The U.N. estimates that over a quarter of a million civilians have fled the country’s sparsely populated north. Within moments of achieving its military objectives, the rebellion was beset by factionalism. In Gao, until recently a bustling garrison city of 80,000, MNLA rebels have squared up with fighters from an al-Qaeda-linked group called the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, which has kidnapped seven Algerian diplomats and is threatening to execute them after negotiations with Algiers broke down. “Gao was on high alert all night last night,” one resident tells TIME. Political uncertainty reigns in Bamako where a military junta, which seized power in March, is at loggerheads with regional mediators seeking a return to democracy. If a fragile kind of order is beginning to return to parts of rebel-held territory, it’s to be welcomed. But for stranded, scarred refugees like Ibrahim Touré, adrift in a strange city, it’s a hollow comfort.