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AP reporter's quest to find bodies ends in desert

Monday - 12/9/2013, 6:39am  ET

In this Aug. 1, 2013 photo, Aichata Wallet Mohamed braids the hair of her daughter, Zeinabou, in the Bamako, Mali house where they are living after fleeing their home in Timbuktu, Mali. The family's patriarch, Ali Ould Kabbad, known as "Vieux Ali," went missing on Feb. 14 in Timbuktu, after being arrested by Malian soldiers. Friends and relatives were later able to identify his clothing amidst the remains of two men found buried in the desert outside Timbuktu. Mali’s military has killed or taken away at least 35 civilians in 2013, many of them Arabs and Tuaregs, according to human rights groups. An AP investigation uncovered the remains of six of these men, whose families identified the bodies and said they were last seen being taken away by Malian soldiers. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI
Associated Press

TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) -- Across the desert, the wind combs the sand into smooth ripples that roll out evenly for miles. So when a hole is dug, you see it immediately. The sand looks agitated. Its pattern is disturbed.

That's how you know where the bodies are buried.

Close to three dozen people in northern Mali disappeared earlier this year, killed or taken away by the country's military, according to human rights groups. The victims were caught in a backlash against Arabs and Tuaregs, desert people who form a small and shrinking ethnic minority in Mali. As the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press, I wanted to know what had happened to them.

Over six months, my colleagues and I tracked down what we would rather not have found: Six bodies in the desert, including that of a 70-year-old grandfather who had become a symbol of the killings. In each case, the victims had last been seen taken away by the Malian military at gunpoint. And in at least four of the cases, the military was found responsible in an internal report described to me but never released to the public.

The bodies offer concrete evidence for killings that Mali's government has so far denied in public. If the government acknowledges their deaths, it could open a path to bring those who killed the men to justice. It also finally could return the bodies to their bereft families, who did not know where their loved ones were buried, or were too terrified to recover them.

Mali's government, which has been promised $4.2 billion in aid from the international community, has refused to comment. The military reacted angrily.

"You have no proof. Show me the proof!" Col. Diarran Kone, spokesman for Mali's ministry of defense, told the AP last week. After hearing that the AP investigation had located six of the bodies, he added: "We have nothing more to say about this."

_____

We found the first body almost by accident, after our car got stuck in the sand.

I was in Timbuktu to report on the end of an al-Qaida-led occupation, which among other things had rubbed salt into racial wounds.

During their 10-month-long rule, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb had driven out the Malian army and terrorized this city. Its Arabic-speaking fighters created racial division by giving key posts to the city's Arabs and Tuaregs, who shared their history of marginalization, as well as their light skin tone. These traditionally nomadic people make up less than 10 percent of Mali's population of 15.9 million, the majority of whom are black.

When France finally sent troops into its former colony to drive out the extremists in January, the city was in ecstasy. Women tore off their veils. People who had not heard music for close to a year danced in the streets, holding up cellphones as improvised boom boxes.

But the bitterness of the invasion lingered. And when the army came back, it was looking to settle scores. In some cases, those who happened to share the same skin color as the extremists paid with their lives.

A week after my arrival at the end of January, we began hearing rumors of bodies dumped in the desert. My colleague Baba Ahmed, AP's correspondent in Mali, drove north to the dunes, where his car got mired in the sand.

The children who came to help push it out pointed him to the spot where a middle-aged man's white robe stuck out of the ground. He'd been dumped less than a mile outside the city, a few hundred yards from a soccer field.

By the time I got there, the people living nearby seemed to know everything about the man lying beneath just one foot of sand, starting with his ethnicity: "L'Arabe," they said. Arab.

The man, Mohamed Lamine, turned out to be the headmaster of a local Quranic school. We found his frightened wife, who confirmed that she had seen her husband loaded into the back of a military truck at gunpoint.

She agreed to come to the grave in the dark, before dawn, with her parents. When she recognized her husband's robe, Ani Bokar Arby screamed out. Next to his head lay a spent bullet.

Just a few yards away, we found the body of another Arab man, Mohamed Tidiane, a carpet seller taken the same day and identified by Lamine's family.

These first two bodies taught us where and how to look: Drive north to a concrete cement flame built, ironically, as a memorial to peace. Then scan the undulating surface, until the sand gives itself away.

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