Many refugees have fled northern Mali for Mauritania. There are some 200,000 like them who have left Mali, going to the countries around it. One of the relatively safe havens is Niger. The danger brought by the Tuareg offensive drove Zoulfa and her four children there.
Zoulfa said: “We are nomads so we move and live in different places. Where we were, in our village, armed men attacked and came to steal our belongings, so we decided to leave. We joined a nomad camp, but we were still attacked.”
The northern Mali region of Azawad is populated by Tuareg tribes who have traditionally moved across borders freely, sometimes over great distances.
These three million people or so live mostly in Mali, speaking one of the Berber languages: Tamachec. They are Sunni Muslims.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) wants to set up an independent secular republic in this part of Mali.
Mauritania-based leader Hama Ag Mahmoud said: “The MNLA does not have any link with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and none with the Islamist group Ansar Dine. They are jihadist movements, Islamist movements. Ours is a secular movement whose ambition is to deal in the best possible way with the interest of Azawad.”
The Tuareg rebels launched their offensive against the Malian Army In mid-January, many of the Tuaregs having fought for Libyan ex-leader Muammar Gaddafi. Previous Tuareg rebellions were put down by Mali. Now sufficiently re-armed, they moved to establish supremacy in Azawad.
But they have to contend with other groups active across this vast expanse, where states have little control over those such as the jihadists of AQIM and Ansar Dine, which is led by a former Tuareg rebel, Iyad Ag Ghaly.
It is feared that the fighting could damage the World Heritage Site of Timbuktu, nearly 1,000 years old. It is home to a unique style of mud and wood architecture, and hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts, including Arabic Islamic writing, science, maths and history, whose knowledge represents a tangible challenge to western misconceptions about this part of Africa.