January 13, 2008

Tuaregs, two countries, two different situations

Photo: The Tuareg blues band Tinariwen performs on stage. They have numerous CD albums, which are available on Amazon.com Each year, Tinariwen hosts the Festival of the Camel, at Tessalit, in Mali. Photo credit: Slushpup, on Flickr

In Mali last night, Tuaregs just finished up with two international folk festivals. There's the Festival of the Camel, hosted by the Tuareg band Tinariwen, at Tessalit, and the Festival in the Desert, at Essakane, only 65 kilometers from Timbuktu. During the day, there are traditional Tuareg celebrations, including camel races, drumming and singing events performed by Tuareg women (tende), workshops and parades. At night there are concerts.

Thousands of Tuaregs, and several hundred tourists have been enjoying the music of numerous Tuareg blues and rock groups from Mali, Niger and Mauretania, as well as some other local bands, and even some imported ones. Imagine a band stage, with lights, a booming sound system and a vast audience, out the in the middle of the Sahara! The Essakane festivities feature a group of Eskimo (Inuit) performers all the way from Alaska.

Many of the members of the Tuareg bands were once rebels who originally met as refugees in Libya and Algeria in the late 60s, 70s and 80s. They have their CDs for sale on Amazon.com, and you can listen to selections of their music there. Many of the bands are listed below this post, under Contemporary Tuareg music.

If you want to go there next year, make an appointment for a yellow fever shot, get a visa, and start saving your cash -- several thousand dollars. Tuaregs and Europeans organized these festivities, and the Malian government helped sponsor it.

On the other hand, try to imagine a Tuareg village, Iferwan, just a few hundred miles away to the east, that became a ghost town only a few weeks ago. The people there fled south to Agadez, west to Arlit, and north to Algeria, because they were afraid of the Niger army.

In their country, Niger, the army has been hunting down, arresting, torturing and brutally murdering Tuareg civilians in their region, in retaliation for attacks by the Tuareg-led Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), which has taken up arms to try and get negotiations for a better life for their people. Niger has always hovered at the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index, where many people have to try to feed their families for about $1 a day (UN Common Database: 60.56% in 1995), and nearly everybody lives in desperate poverty.

The 2005 Niger Food Crisis brought world attention to the suffering in Niger, when many Americans will remember the broadcasts by CNNs Anderson Cooper, who went to Niger to document the "pencil stick" babies and starving people. In 2006, Niger was declared the Poorest County in the World. The Tuaregs have been economically marginalized, and have routinely been excluded from food relief, medical aid, and development funds for decades, since the country's independence.

Both Mali and Niger are poor, but the music festivals in Mali highlight the fact that the Malian government now seems in certain ways more favorable to acknowledging and including the Tuaregs. Even though rebel activities have recently been going on there, too, the Tuaregs in Mali can host these joyous festivals, and bring some cheer and acclaim to their people.

In Niger, no one is allowed to visit the Tuaregs, to see the dreadful conditions they are living in, and to hear their plight. The government stopped tourist traffic through Tuareg areas many months ago, banned Doctors Without Borders from the Agadez region, cut off shipments of food relief to Agadez from Libya, and has refused to allow relief workers and supplies into the area to help the Tuaregs.

There is a virtual news blackout on the situation, since the government has said that no one is allowed to give an honest report. The news is heavily filtered and manipulated, and in order to survive, newspapers and radio stations must practice self-censorship. Four reporters are in jail, awaiting possible death sentences for allegedly interviewing the rebels.

As recently as ten days ago (Jan. 3rd), according to MNJ, the Niger army moved through Tuareg villages in the North, shooting their livestock, and extorting them. The Tuaregs in Niger live in a climate of fear and repression.

Last week, a landmine blew up in Niamey, hundreds of miles from the conflict area, and killed a radio reporter. Some groups fear that Niger's clampdown on freedom of speech and of the press has gone from bad to worse. Has the government of Niger resorted to killing reporters, and instilling fear in the general population? The Niger Defense Minister has accused the Tuaregs of laying landmines in the cities (which they refuse), and he has called on citizens "to fight" against them.

The Niger army has gone out of control, killing Tuareg civilians and livestock. The government has, according to MNJ, been running hate campaigns against the Tuareg people on the national TV and radio stations. Various leaders have been talking about "finishing off" the rebels and "exterminating" the Tuaregs. The Defense Minister seems to be calling for some sort of civilian "vigilance brigades" or militias against the Tuareg rebels, since the national army hasn't been effective.

Where will it all end? Is the Niger government so corrupt and confused that it means to start another genocide like Rwanda's?

From being at the bottom of the world heap in terms of development and food security in 2006, Niger has risen to the top of the world list of abusers of human rights, as a "predator" on freedom of the press, according to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MNJ has a post addressing this topic).

What can be done? It's pretty grim -- 3,500 Tuareg men, women and children are huddled together far from their homes in a remote area of northern Niger, with nothing to eat, no shelter, no medical attention, and no way to get help, since the government has cut off the North from the usual American and European non-government organizations that would provide help.

But some Tuareg organizations are trying to pull together an emergency relief campaign, through local people. You can find out more about it by clicking on the following websites: Tchinagen and Targuinca

Tchinaghen: click HERE for ENGLISH


Telephone (from the U.S.) 011 (33) 6 28 O5 76 57

Telephone (from Europe) (33) (0) 6 28 05 76 57

You can also sign a PETITION FOR PEACE IN NIGER:


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