Deep in central Mali, what was supposed to be harvest season for villagers has become a season of starvation, death and destruction.
Mali’s health ministry says so far hundreds of people have died from what it describes as a man-made famine, as farmers and herders fight over land.
It is an ancestral conflict that takes place at the height of the dry season between the Dogon, who are traditional farmers and hunters, and the Fulani, the semi-nomadic herders of the Sahel.
The Dogon accuse the Fulani of overstepping on their farmland to feed their animals, while the Fulani accuse the Dogon of killing and stealing their cattle. And now they are killing each other.
In one of the worst attacks, 160 Fulani villagers were killed in Ogossagou in March. Mamadou Togo, the chief representative of Mali’s Dogon people, tells Al Jazeera the attack was not perpetrated by Dogon hunters. He says the Dogon have not attacked any Fulani villages, despite there being tensions between the two communities.
However, he admits that “when other people come and attack the Dogon, they retaliate”.
“I am convinced that there are other invisible, obscure forces that are planning to destabilise the entire subregion. And to succeed in this destabilisation, it is necessary to create a war between the different ethnic groups,” said Mahmoud Dicko, Fulani leader.
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“We cannot sit and watch people come and kill us and go back without anything. We said no, this is intolerable,” he says. “When you come to kill me and I’m not dead, for instance, if I can I will kill you.”
The two sides both accuse the other of being the aggressor.
Mahmoud Dicko, a Fulani and a powerful leader of the High Islamic Council, blames the mutual mistrust on outside interference.
“I am convinced that there are other invisible, obscure forces that are planning to destabilise the entire subregion. And to succeed in this destabilisation, it is necessary to create a war between the different ethnic groups,” he says.
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The violence is not limited to Mali, either. In neighbouring Sahelian countries, Fulanis have been in conflict with other tribes as well. Fuelling this conflict are armed groups – including al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates – who are stepping in and taking sides. Some have been fighting in the war in Libya.
“This crisis in the centre of Mali started from the occupation of northern Mali by terrorist groups [in 2012],” says Tiebile Drame, the Malian minister of foreign affairs. “The Malian crisis is directly linked to the situation in Libya, to the collapse of Libya in 2011.”
Since 2013, the United Nations peacekeeping mission MINUSMA has been operating in Mali. There are currently 14,000 UN troops – among them British, Canadian and German soldiers – as well as 4,000 French combat troops and regional G5 Sahel forces in the country.
Despite this, the violence is spreading, and spiralling out of control.
Insurgent and rebel groups also directly target security forces, launching suicide attacks and car bombings. MINUSMA is now the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission, with more UN troops dying in Mali than anywhere else, or at any time before. This also adds to the feeling shared by many Malians that the security forces are not a source of protection but a source of danger.
Nevertheless, the $1bn a year MINUSMA mission has been renewed for another year, while Mali’s government is calling for the creation of a coalition force like the ones seen in Iraq and Afghanistan to intervene in Mali.
But the Dogon and Fulani leaders we spoke to are both sceptical about outside actors.
Dogon leader Togo believes France profits from the instability in the country, saying Mali’s former colonial master “wants to recolonise again this country because of the wealth underground”.
Meanwhile, Fulani leader Dicko says the UN mission and international community are failing Mali, spending billions of dollars “for their own comfort”.
“I say to leave us alone, to leave the Sahelians between us,” he says. “We are brothers, we have lived together for millennia. We have a mechanism to settle things between us. If we are left alone, we ourselves will find a solution to this problem.”
To examine who profits from Mali’s state of instability, and how the violence can be brought to an end, Talk to Al Jazeera In The Field meets Dogon and Fulani leaders to try to understand this complex conflict.
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