Death Comes Quietly in Mali

It’s not Islamic radicals or war that’s killing the poor people of the Sahel. It’s something far simpler.

DJENNÉ, Mali — Last Saturday, Albert Ganou, an unemployed tour guide with an ailing heart, prostrated on a thin cotton blanket in his musty room and refused to eat. His limbs swelled. His breath grew shallow. When his pregnant wife and four daughters spoke to him he could barely whisper back.

Friends pooled money and helped Ganou through the sewage-sluiced snarl of narrow adobe alleys to Djenné district hospital, which employs a handful of general practitioners and some nurses. The doctor prescribed painkillers and a salt-free diet. Then night fell and the spongy, low sky dribbled a billion stars over the millennial town, and Ganou died. Men buried him quietly at daybreak in the town's walled cemetery by the Bani River, where tamarind trees contort their baroque trunks over generations of the dead, and Djenné's world-celebrated Sudanic skyline gives way to the immense pale horizons of thorny and flat Sahelian wilderness.

Ganou was in his early forties. In the postmortem the doctors stated the cause of his death as "heart failure." They should have written "neglect."

From time to time, humanitarian crises push Mali into the world's distracted eye. The latest example is the French intervention to force out of Mali's north a hodgepodge of radical Salafis, Tuareg rebels, and drug traffickers linked to al Qaeda, who had established there a punitive and grotesque theocracy reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch paintings, keeping order through amputations and lashings. The day Ganou died, French and Malian troops wrested free of the Islamists' control Kidal, the last insurgent-held city in Mali's north. Months earlier, three successive coups and counter-coups in Bamako and the simultaneous insurgent expansion in the north briefly grabbed international attention. The year before, drought and famine throttled Mali, and networks broadcast the stereotypical images of Sahel's dying, bloat-bellied babies -- a painful echo of the famines of the mid-1980s, when a million skeletal people wasted away on this hardscrabble, laterite savanna.

The creeping systemic healthcare crisis that allows Malians like Ganou to perish daily is harder to capture in made-for-TV snippets. Aid workers agree: War notwithstanding, the country is in no outward emergency. There are no throngs of matchstick-limbed children with protruding stomachs, no AIDS victims scooped into shallow graves. Simple poverty makes the problem as endemic as it is routine.

Most Malians cannot afford to seek even perfunctory healthcare in the country's limited medical facilities, which, like so much infrastructure in this impoverished country, are propped up by international development organizations and relief groups whose budgets now are stretched extra-thin by the needs of more than 300,000 people who have fled the fighting in the north. Even in peacetime, the country has the second-highest infant mortality rate in the world, after Afghanistan, and thirteenth-highest death rate overall. One in three children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition. Relief workers in Bamako, Mali's capital, told me this is normal, a habitual, unabating catastrophe.

The calamities fold onto one another, double and triple up, mostly unexamined and unassisted, invisible to the rest of the world. For example, no one can guess how many people will be hungrier, sicker, and more destitute than usual because they have welcomed into their homes families of relatives who have run away from the war in the north. Aid organizations expect 660,000 children under five to suffer from acute malnutrition this year, one of the aftershocks of last year's severe food crisis. Since Mali's impoverished, putschist government is bogged down in its own stalled political process, the burden of providing healthcare for them will fall on international NGOs. And what about men like Ganou, who could not afford even an electrocardiogram, because the clinic in Djenné has no EKG machines and to reach the nearest one that does, in Mopti, would have cost an unaffordable $150?

Of course, the people of the Sahel have been navigating attenuated resources forever. The 15 million Malians are persevering, chaffing in the shade of mosques, watching the Africa Cup of Nations on television sets outside shabby mercantiles at dusk. In Djenné, they share dinner leftovers with neighbors. They parcel out their children among various relatives to avoid starvation. My host here has taken in two.

After Ganou's widow and children complete the 40 days of mourning, she probably will move into her parents' crowded and beggared house, and my host probably will take in two of Ganou's daughters, as well. But doctors haven't been able to tell him why his own 22-month-old son has been cranky and feverish for more than a week now, despite the malaria medicine and painkillers prescribed by the same district hospital that could offer no succor to Albert Ganou.

Ganou had been ill for a year. His friends say he had a weak heart, but how weak exactly no one can say. It is possible that last February he had a heart attack; but then he got slightly better, even got his wife pregnant. It is possible he had a second heart attack last month, when he suddenly became too frail to move. There was no one in Djenné to diagnose him, no one to recommend treatment, let alone perform surgery.

For the last week of his life, Ganou lay in the stuffy room of his oblique clay house. When friends visited he whispered, sometimes in the English he had learned to guide Western tourists: "I really don't want to eat," and "God knows best."

The day Ganou died, I sat with a primary school teacher of French under a thatch awning in the square before the Grande Mosque of Djenné. The awning belonged to a goldsmith who, like many men here, has been unemployed for two years. Once, Djenné was a center of trade and Islamic learning, and an important resting point for trans-Saharan caravans of salt, slaves, and gold. After the great famine of the 1980s, UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site. Since then, much of the town's economy has depended on tourism. But tourists stopped coming two years ago,  kept away by the combination of the global financial crisis and the fear of kidnappings by Mali's Islamists. Now much of adult Djenné sits under thatch awnings, stringing together beaded necklaces no one will buy, smoking cigarettes, drinking tea, and waiting for better times. They are the parents of perpetually hungry children. They are the adults wasting away invisibly from sickness, like Ganou. "Everybody here," said the town mayor, Bomoye Traoré, "is very, very poor."

The teacher and I drank hot hibiscus tea from shot glasses. His name was Cheik Kanitoo. He was 32 years old. From time to time, children in tatters flitted just under the shade of the pleated awning and stood there, mucoid and stunted and coughing the terrible cough of the condemned. Kanitoo told me that at least a third of his class of 120 seven-year-olds is always sick.

"They have rheumy eyes. They are malnourished. They have respiratory problems. They have malaria," Kanitoo said. "Parents don't have the opportunity to take them to the doctor. They have a choice, either to buy food or medicine -- sometimes they can't afford either."

Since this school year started in September, one of Kanitoo's students died, a girl. He doesn't know of what, but suggests a combination of malaria and malnutrition. He doesn't remember the student's name, or what she looked like. Nor does he remember the five or six of his students who died last year, or the five or six who died the year before.

"I have a giant class, how can I remember?" he said. "But every morning before class I take attendance.... If someone doesn't respond for one, two, three days in a row I ask the class what happened. Sometimes the classmates say, 'he's dead,' or 'she's sick.'"

How does a teacher cope, emotionally, with such a loss? Kanitoo couldn't say. How does he explain it to the rest of his class? He doesn't. Instead, he told me that after school some of the boys he teaches come to his house asking for sugar.

"You know what they do with the sugar? They have one meal a day, millet, for breakfast. So in the afternoon if they get some sugar they just eat it. Out of a plastic bag. They dip their fingers into it and lick it off." 

One of Kanitoo's friends tipped a tin cup full of water, and a lizard sidled up to the drip and with a quick tongue caught the drops before they fell and curdled like mercury balls in the dust. The loudspeaker at the Grande Mosque crackled like distant bursts of gunfire and a muezzin began his summons to the afternoon prayer. The Harmattan, the dry northeasterly wind of winter, blew particles of straw, the smell of manure and motorcycle exhaust, cigarette smoke, wisps of prayer, dreams of food. A small boy in a ripped orange shirt stood at the edge of the awning and looked at us awhile. He said nothing. Then he left.



Syria's Secular Revolution Lives On

Islamist radicals may be gaining strength, but the spirit that sparked this uprising survives in the unlikeliest of places.

In the town of Azaz, in northern Syria, a trail of destroyed houses, mass graves, tank tracks, and shell casings provides a glimpse of the daily reality for millions of Syrians. At the nearby Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey, children tell of fleeing their homes after being shelled by regime forces and attacked by pro-government militias.

"Why did Bashar have to send his community against us to kill our innocent people?" one man asks, framing the conflict as a war between the Alawite sect, a community to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs, and Syria's Sunni majority. Another man praises "the true righteous Muslims" of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group known for its vitriol toward Alawites and support for fundamentalist Islamic rule.

Such scenes, which I saw on my recent trip to war-torn northern Syria, point to the worrying growth of jihadi and Salafi groups -- but these forces are not the only players emerging in the new Syria. The secular and nationalist spirit that initially sparked the Syrian revolution is also still alive and well. Many grassroots activists and religious leaders are working to forge a country that is built on secular principles, against sectarian revenge, and supportive of equal rights for all its citizens. Even some of the sharia courts that have sprung up to administer justice in areas the Syrian government has abandoned contain surprising, nonsectarian trends.

Whether such a movement can survive as the uprising drags on is not yet clear. For the time being, however, these figures embody the sliver of hope that Syria may avoid an all-out sectarian war.

Grassroots movements

Among the best-known nonviolent protest movements on the ground is Tajammu' Nabd, or the Pulse Gathering for Civil Youth, which defines its purpose as to "fight the regime and fight sectarianism." It is led by Yamen Hussein, an Alawite originally from Homs, who joined the revolution in its earliest days. The relatively small, youth-led movement has served as a vehicle to empower minorities -- especially Alawites, the bulk of whom have been hostile to the revolution.

With bases in secular strongholds like Yabrud, Salamiyah, Zabadani, and Homs, Nabd activists have taken on small but unique projects. On Christmas, its activists dressed up as Santa Clauses and gave gifts to the Christians of Homs. In protests throughout the country, Nabd sends minority and secular activists to hold up signs that read: "In Syria there are two sects: the sect of freedom and the sect of the oppressors," and "Before you call for sectarian revenge, remember that you trembled when you witnessed the massacre."

"A small proportion of the signs and chants in protests in parts of Syria are growing more radical and sectarian, so we want to be the counterforce and present our movement on the ground," Hussein told me. "But the hardest work will come after we overthrow the regime, where we will try to keep our country from being torn apart."

Beyond organizations like Nabd, individual activists also work independently to help the uprising and build bridges between the predominantly Sunni rebels and the country's minority communities. Half a dozen Alawite and Ismaili activists, who requested that their names not be mentioned, told me how they regularly work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to sneak humanitarian and military aid through regime checkpoints. The presence of uncovered women who speak with an Alawite accent allows these activists to avoid suspicion by the regime.

Other activists loudly broadcast their contribution to the anti-Assad effort: One woman I met, Loubna Mrie, a young Alawite woman from the city of Jableh, publicly goes in and out of Syria with FSA brigades to deliver wheat to civilians in war-torn areas.

Religious leaders

Minorities and secular youth are only one part of the anti-sectarian revolutionary movement -- religious leaders also play a prominent role. Sheikh Abu al-Huda al-Husseini, former director of religious endowments in Aleppo, split with the regime in August 2011 and defected to Turkey. He has teamed up with Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, a former Sufi preacher at Damascus's al-Hassan Mosque who famously attacked the regime in a May 2011 sermon, to form the "National Bloc," which seeks to advance an anti-radicalization and anti-sectarian agenda.

Husseini, over dinner in the Turkish city of Iskenderun, made the case for a moderate interpretation of Islam. He noted that the Quran prohibits sectarianism and stressed the need for a general amnesty after the fall of the regime, arguing that forgiveness is a central tenet of Islam. Husseini also expressed his vision for a civil state and pluralistic government after the fall of the Syrian regime, proposing a bicameral system that gives each religious or ethnic community's leaders an opportunity to be heard in government. "Everyone should get a say, no matter how small his group is, even the atheists," he told me.

The National Bloc attempts to bring together 100 of Syria's most prominent, pro-revolution public leaders -- including tribal chiefs, intellectuals, religious clerics, and scientists -- to advance a message of national unity and reconciliation. The idea is that such elites can use their standing in Syrian society to push the country away from radicalism and revenge. The bloc advocates a return to Syria's 1950 constitution as a starting point for the post-Assad period.

Husseini is looking over the horizon to the post-Assad transition to expand the bloc's role. "There is too much fighting now, too much blood. It is hard to talk to battle-hardened fighters and tell them a message at this time," he said.

Sharia courts

Impromptu courts established to dispense Islamic law might seem a prime vehicle for advancing radical ideas, but sometimes in Syria, they do just the opposite. In two sharia courts -- one at the Bab al-Salameh border crossing and the other in the northern province of Idlib -- these bodies are an antidote to the idea of collective sectarian revenge.

"There is no crime in Islam called being an Alawite," Sheikh Abu Jamal, head of the sharia and law division of Idlib Council, told me. "As religious leaders we have the important role of being against vigilante justice, and we have spoken out against many of the youths taking matters into their own hands. Most people listen to us."

Abu Jamal said that the purpose of sharia courts is to make sure that no one is punished without a trial. In his court, the accused is innocent until proven guilty; both a human rights activist and Islamic cleric are witnesses at the trial to advise and object to irregularities; and each accused is offered the right to a lawyer.

Still, the sharia courts are plagued with problems. Not all such courts are created equal, and the protections Abu Jamal offers may not be present elsewhere. There is no appeals process, and the system of choosing and electing judges is biased toward revolutionary justice. At the same time, however, the courts' role in supporting due process and rule of law has acted as a counterweight to sectarian vigilantism in this transitional period.

Militant groups 

Some militant groups are also hostile to the growing radicalization of their anti-Assad brethren. In the northern town of Azaz, I met Capt. Bewar Mustafa, head of the Kurdish Salah al-Din Brigade, which largely fights in Aleppo. "We believe in democracy, equal rights for all, and representation," he told me. "This is automatically against sectarianism. We are the Free Syrian Army for all Syrians, not just for one group, and the Kurds in this are a moderating force."

Mustafa, a defected army captain, is afraid of the rising popularity of extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. He also distrusts the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the Turkish insurgent PKK, whose leadership he says holds extreme separatist views and cooperates with the Assad regime. While there might be a need for temporary alliances with the radicals now, he said, Kurdish fighters are determined to stand up against sectarianism when the regime falls.

"Now we Kurds are in the fight, fighting alongside even al-Nusra in Aleppo, and the day after, we will defend all Syrians," he said. "I swear to God, if some radicals want to go kill the Alawites, we will fight with our guns and die to defend the Alawites because we are the army for all Syrians."

The Salah al-Din Brigade's members, who also include Arabs and Turkmen, explicitly affirm their desire for a secular state respecting pluralism, minorities, and religious freedoms. With their identity as mostly secular Kurds, they see themselves as a bridge between Syria's Sunni Arab and minority communities.


Uniting Syria's secularists

Syria's secularists were initially unorganized, but they have increasingly banded together to combat the rise of radical Islamist factions. Muhammad Hussein, a cardiologist and human rights activist from Aleppo, has been one of the key figures in building bridges between the country's disparate nonsectarian revolutionary forces.

Hussein launched the National Coalition to Protect the Civil Peace in late 2012 to unite secular civil society groups and aid organizations with secular-minded rebel brigades. He is currently working to bring together forces like the Salah al-Din Brigade, the minority-led National Unity Brigades that operate in parts of Idlib and Hama, and small Christian brigades that exist near the city of Qamishli with their counterparts in aid organizations, schools, and grassroots movements.

"There are a lot of people here who still believe in our nation," Hussein tells me. This coalition of civil forces may not be able to halt the rise of radical jihadists, whom he refers to as "sick-minded people," but he hopes that it will at least give civil and anti-sectarian forces a foothold on the ground.

At this point, Hussein's coalition is mostly focusing on Aleppo. The city is particularly important due to its ethnic and religious diversity -- Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Christians, and Sufis all call it home -- and the rise of radical groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra there. Hussein's plan is to establish "militants ready to protect the civil peace," composed of both rebel groups and secular activists, to police the neighborhoods. These local groups will police their own areas, protecting against sectarianism and radicalization.

Such forces are not yet fully in action, but their intent is to protect communities from both the regime's sectarian shabiha and radical Islamist groups. "There was never any option other than opposing this awful regime," Hussein says. "What's coming next may not be good in the short term, but we must at least have something in place to protect national unity. We cannot surrender to the extremists so fast."

Despite the energy of the anti-sectarian movement, the regime's increasing brutality is leading to worrying signs of radicalization across Syria. Of those I spoke to, only a few were willing to criticize Jabhat al-Nusra, saying that the al Qaeda-linked jihadi group is helping on the ground in ways the West has failed to do.

What I found most surprising was how many secularists and activists from minority backgrounds defended the jihadists. Ali al-Meer, a Shiite doctor and spokesman for the Local Coordination Committee of Salamiyah, a city whose majority is Ismaili, summed it up. "Look, I am Shiite, but these Salafis are helping us. Ahrar al-Sham is fighting the regime and delivering aid even to Shiite areas, even if we don't see eye to eye on many things."

One Alawite woman who wished to remain anonymous cast a more defiant tone: "I don't understand why the United States calls Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist, while Bashar al-Assad is the only terrorist in Syria."

Syria's revolution began peacefully, and hopeful anecdotes of national unity are still evident on the ground. As the conflict drags on, however, the anti-sectarian forces are slowing losing ground to the radicals -- but still remain Syria's last, best hope for avoiding a sectarian civil war.