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Is Mali Becoming The New Afghanistan?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we will meet an American filmmaker whose film about her Tanzanian father and Korean mother bring a global twist to this weekend's Asian-American International Film Festival. We'll hear more about her and her film in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to check in on the situation in Mali. For the past 20 years, this nation in the Sahara Desert has been hailed as a model democracy. But in March, there was a military coup just six weeks before President Amadou Toumani Toure was supposed to step down after serving his two-term limit.

But the new government has not been able to command the whole country. In the north, Islamist rebels - some with links to al-Qaida - have taken control. Now some commentators are calling Mali Africanistan, as in the Afghanistan of Africa, and it looks like military intervention could be on the horizon.

NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has returned to the Malian capital to assess the situation. She joins us now from Bamako.

Ofeibea, thanks so much for joining us once again.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings from the Malian capital.

MARTIN: Can you just give us a sense of the atmosphere there?

QUIST-ARCTON: Bamako has calmed down considerably, Michel, since the interim - the caretaker president, Dioncounda Traore, flew in a week ago, on Friday last week. He'd been away for two months, getting medical treatment after he was beaten rather badly by supporters of the coup leaders. So Malians are now saying perhaps we can start moving now to resolve many of our problems that our nation is facing.

MARTIN: How does this compare to the last time you were in Bamako, when you were there just after the coup?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, I was in the thick of it then. People were frightened. People were apprehensive. The Economic Community of West African States, the regional bloc ECOWAS had just imposed sanctions on Mali because of the military coup, and people were lining up for fuel, for - people were scared.

Now, I think there's - people are less frightened now. But in a way, they're even more anxious, because since then, the north is now under the control of rebels, some of them apparently linked to al-Qaida, Islamists who have imposed strict Islamic law on two-thirds of the country.

So Malians want to see the problems resolved.

MARTIN: Talk about life in the north, if you would. You've reported that there are regional leaders and there are officials in the U.S. who fear that the north has become a haven for what they call Islamist terrorism. Can you talk a little bit about how the presence of some of these fighters has affected life in the north?

QUIST-ARCTON: Radically. Radically is the short answer to your question, Michel. People in the north - and we're talking about the three strategic main towns in the north: Timbuktu, which most people have heard of, but there is also Gao and Kidal. Many, many people have fled from these three northern regional centers, but those who are still there - and I recently spoke to the mayor of Timbuktu - says, you know, they're suffering.

This is Ramadan. It's the Muslim fast right now. But there's a lack of food, of money, of jobs, of opportunity, of peace and freedom. And, apparently, the more radical of the Islamists who are in control are imposing Shariah in ways that interim government here has called practices that hark back to the dark ages.

Over the weekend, a couple - and there are two different stories, one that they were not married, one that they were married. But the Islamists said they were committing adultery. They were stoned to death, buried up to their heads, and then stoned to death. Women who are deemed to be dressed improperly are punished. Those who are considered to have committed a crime are whipped. Children apparently are not allowed to watch television or play football - no smoking, no card games.

So it's a radically different Northern Mali than Malians are used to. Most Malians - or many Malians practice a form of Islam that is Sufism. So it's really tolerant, really intellectual. They're not used to this hard-line Islam that is being imposed on them.

MARTIN: We're taking a closer look at the situation in Mali with NPR's West Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She is in the capital of Mali, Bamako. And, Ofeibea, you know, to that end, people are leaving. Are they not? They are leaving the north. What is the scope of the amount of people on the move, from what you've been able to determine? And are they mainly coming to the capital, and how is that affecting life there?

QUIST-ARCTON: It's been a huge influx, but that's over the past three months. And it's not just Malians moving from the north down to Bamako. They are crossing the borders helter-skelter into neighboring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso. We're told that there are hundreds of thousands now in makeshift refugee camps, and you know what that implies: perhaps disease. And with people observing Ramadan, you know, terrible, terrible problems.

Yes, of course, it's having an effect on Bamako, because some people, of course, are being taken in by their families here, but many others have to be put up wherever they can be. So - and, of course, they're bringing their stories. And I think that's why the people of Bamako are saying to the leadership here, you know, this has got to be resolved.

And many people there, Michel, are saying it's got to be militarily resolved, that they want to see the extremists driven out permanently of the north. Otherwise, it's going to completely change the face of Mali.

MARTIN: And, finally, Ofeibea, I just wanted to ask if you would talk a little bit more about the prospect of military intervention. Is the caretaker government deemed to have the authority to call for this kind of intervention? Is this kind of military intervention by ECOWAS or some other entity very likely?

QUIST-ARCTON: It may happen. We don't know yet. The discussions are still happening. And, of course, once the region has decided, it takes it to the UN. The UN Security Council has rejected the first proposal, but now you even have General Carter Ham, the U.S. AFRICOM commander. He's the head of the U.S. command in Africa, saying the U.S. is prepared to help.

Secretary Clinton is in Africa. Yesterday, she gave a keynote address in Dakar, Senegal at the start of her Africa tour, and she says Mali is one of the examples of what was a model democracy that has gone wrong drastically and must be resolved.

MARTIN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from West Africa for NPR. She was with us today from the capital of Mali, Bamako.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, thank you so much for speaking with us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.