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Tanks, mines, poverty strangle Mali town

06 February 2013, 16:01

Douentza - Douentza's Islamist occupiers have fled, but the central Malian town is still effectively under siege, its residents cut off from the outside world by tanks, land mines and poverty.

Douentza was the southernmost town held by the insurgents for much of the 10 months they controlled northern Mali, until they inched a step closer to the capital by seizing nearby Konna on 10 January - provoking a lightning French intervention that has now pushed them back to the remote northeast.

But life in Douentza, recaptured by French and Malian troops on 21 January, has still not returned to normal.

The Malian army's rusty Soviet-designed T55 tanks and camouflage pick-ups are lined up at the edge of town, their guns pointed toward the surrounding bush, where according to a Malian officer Islamist fighters are still present.

Roads in and out of the town are littered with land mines, the officer says.

Two Malian soldiers were killed last week when their vehicle drove over a mine between Douentza and Hombori, 150km to the northeast, and improvised explosive devices have been found on the same road, according to military sources.

"We're living under embargo. We can't move," says Ousmane Koita, owner of the La Falaise hotel, which has been closed for 10 months.

The armed extremists set up camp in the the high school, the teachers' academy and the N'Douldi Hotel, all of which were ripped open by missile strikes and are scattered with ammunition that has exploded in the stifling heat.

Douentza used to be a tourist town, a jumping-off point for Westerners trekking atop the sheer cliffs of the Bandiagara Escarpment and visiting the remote villages scattered around them.

Completely paralysed

The area is home to the Dogon, one of the most insular peoples on Earth, famous for their elaborate mask dances, their animist religious traditions and their intricately carved wooden doors.

"There's enough to eat for now, but commerce has been almost completely paralysed. You can leave the town but not come back," says Koita.

At the market, where fruits and vegetables are rare, men sit idly in the sandy square, with no jobs to go to and no way to earn money.

Beneath a stand made of four tree trunks with a straw roof, Amadou Traore sells the few potatoes available, which have gone up more than 50% in price since the start of the crisis, to 700 CFA francs per kilogramme.

"We can't get potatoes because the road is cut off. For almost a month now we haven't made any money," he says.

Next door, at a shipping container transformed into a petrol station, Ousmane Omgoiba says he was on the verge of running out of fuel until the Malian army brought a new tank several days ago.

"The shipment saved us a little," he said, as a dump truck passed by, the words "Every soul will know death" written on its side in white.

The town had more than 25 000 people before the conflict erupted in the wake of a military coup on 22 March, which opened a power vacuum that enabled the Islamist militants to seize Mali's vast desert north.

But at least 10 000 people have fled since the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) seized the town - part of at least 377 000 Malians who have fled their homes, according to the United Nations.


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