KONNA – The jihadists bypassed the highway and rolled into the town of Konna on January 10 from what its residents call a forest – a savannah plain with just enough trees to obscure the view. The night they began working the heavy machine guns mounted on their Toyotas, it reminded the locals of fireworks, and the Malian army unit stationed in town caved and retreated. Those who did not flee fast enough and those who stood their ground are dead now.
“There were four of them in the jeep, three Tuareg and one black man,” Ibrahim Bouku, a Konna resident who was brave enough to watch the arrival of the Islamists' advance party, told us last weekend. He could not say where the black Islamist had come from.
“They asked me, why so sad, aren't you glad to see us? And I just told them I don't understand what's going on,” Bouku said. “And then they said something about that they have families too.”
This happened in many towns in the north of Mali, but it ended in Konna: It was here that French forces stopped the steady southward advance of the Islamists from the desert earlier this month. The marines and the Foreign Legion have since pushed them all the way back to the Sahara, but not before learning some lessons the hard way in Konna, where they lost a helicopter pilot. Some locals showed us the building – the only two-story structure in town – from which the Islamists shot at the chopper. It reportedly took them more than an hour to land that hit.
The jihadists were only in Konna for a couple of days, and had no time to impose their understanding of the path of the righteous – no beer, no shorts, no smokes (everybody smokes in Mali), stoning for sex outside wedlock. But they were quick enough to ransack all administrative offices, confiscate all pickup trucks and loot the town's store and gasoline supplies. What they were unable to take with them they blew up when retreating.
The fighting did less damage to Konna than a recent flood did to a neighboring village – which is to say, the town is still standing. Several houses on the south side were destroyed by rocket fire – French fire, in fact, but no one seems to mind. The town hall has been reduced to rubble, and the Malian military does not want us to go near it because, in the yard, charred remains of Tuareg “technicals” (i.e. pickup trucks kitted out for war) are chock full of machine gun shells, some of them unspent. A mortar shell lies on the ground, not far from an APC the Tuareg captured from the Malian army and the French then decapitated with a direct hit. There are more burned technicals outside of town.
None of the locals can say how many jihadists there were, but at least 10 civilians were killed during the shelling of the town, an event now embellished in the press as “the battle of Konna.” Moreover, three unlucky young men who live not far from the town and were out gathering firewood happened to land in the advancing Islamists’ path and were captured.
“The Islamists asked them straight away, ‘Got any cellphones?’ They said no, and a minute later, somebody's phone rang,” said town electrician Bubakar Yalkuye, citing the abductees’ story.
The callers were one of the young men's relatives who wanted to know if they'd seen any Tuareg around – things were getting dangerous, you know. At this, the men were promptly pegged for spies and taken into custody, Yalkuye said.
When the Islamists settled into the town hall, a crowd of Konna residents tried to convince them to release the three. But the Tuareg sent away everyone except for the town imam, whom they asked to read out loud the verse of the Qur’an that spells out what should be done to friends who aid your enemies.
“He stood there for an hour, the imam did,” Yalkuye said. “He stood there and never could bring himself to read that verse.”
The final judgment on the “spies” was postponed until the arrival of Tuareg’s leaders. When the French hit town instead, the trio managed to escape, Yalkuye said. But they wouldn’t talk to anyone, and don’t remember much in any case because they were kept drugged the entire time, he said, claiming this was the Malian Islamists’ standard practice with their prisoners,.
We could not find the imam. The Konna mosque stood empty, its northern wall full of bullet holes and the prayer mats inside strewn with rubble from what looked like two direct hits. We wanted to stay until the evening prayer, but the military rushed us out of the town. The curfew is not to be trifled with.
Add to blog
You may place this material on your blog by copying the link.
Weekly column by Natalia Antonova
Bi-weekly column by Fyodor Lukyanov
Bi-weekly column by Simon Saradzhyan
The Syrian peace conference that Russia and America’s top diplomats have agreed to organize in the next few weeks might be the last chance for this Arab country’s warring factions to find a political solution to their conflict and prevent the sliding of their country into a failed state.
Weekly Column by Daniel Kalder
Weekly column by Natalia Antonova
Normally, you wouldn’t catch me laughing when a building goes up in flames. Yet when it was reported that packages inside the central office of Pochta Rossii, Russia’s beleaguered national postal service, were on fire today – I couldn’t suppress a rueful giggle.
Image Galleries: North Pole: Living on the Top of the World
Infographics: Powerful Ship-Borne Laser System
Cartoons: Polar Explorer Day