Mass graves in Mali: families want answers

By Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International

I had just got off the plane after a trip to Mali when I heard about the discovery of the mass grave close to the Kati military camp, just north of the capital, Bamako. Only a few days earlier I had met family members who were desperate for news about the fate of their loved ones who disappeared after being abducted from the same camp in May 2012.

The bodies were discovered following the arrest of General Amadou Haya Sanogo who led the military coup in March 2012. He and several of his soldiers were arrested in late November and charged with kidnapping, murder and assassination in connection with the disappearance of 21 soldiers suspected of supporting a counter-coup.

I felt a huge sense of loss for the women who are now grieving their sons, husbands and brothers. At least, I thought, they could now finally come to terms with their loss. But no: even though the story of the mass grave is all over the press, no one from the Malian authorities had contacted the women to formally notify them, as of Monday morning.

I can’t forget the words of Cissé Fatimata Ouologuem, whose husband Aboubaca, was one of the 21 disappeared.

She spoke at the launch in Bamako of Amnesty International’s Agenda for Human Rights calling for all perpetrators of human rights violations in Mali in the last few years to be held to account.

“I want justice. I want the guilty to be punished. I just simply want to know whether my husband is dead or alive. If he is dead then I want them to tell me. I’m suffering. My children, my relatives, the whole nation is suffering.”

The mood of the families now is very different from when I met them last week.

They told me how they finally felt able to celebrate, following General Sanogo’s arrest the day before.

“Perhaps we might start to get some answers about what has happened to our husbands and sons,” Sagara Bintu Maiga, President of the Wives and Relatives of the Disappeared Red Berets told me.

The women, who have been threatened for their courageous defiance, have been a formidable campaigning force. Fatimata described how she had knocked at every door, including the Ministry of Justice and General Sanogo himself, before they finally got an audience with the Ministry of Defence.

They threatened protests to shame the authorities if they did not receive any information before our delegation arrived last week.

The following day, General Sanogo was arrested. It is thought that the location of the mass graves was identified because of information given by soldiers detained at the same time.

The women’s courage is inspiring, and all the more so because they were being threatened for pursuing the truth.

Mali has experienced the worst crisis in its history. Thousands have lost relatives, either at the hands of the armed groups in the north or the Malian security forces. And few perpetrators have been held to account. The women we met said they were counting on Amnesty International to help deliver justice.

It is increasingly clear that we cannot bring back loved ones. But we must do all we can to ensure that the all perpetrators are held to account and the truth is finally told. Only then will Mali experience lasting peace and stability.

Read more:

Mali must urgently identify bodies found in mass grave  (Press release, 5 December 2013)Malian authorities must release children detained in prison (News story, 30 November 2013)
An Agenda for Human Rights in Mali (Report, 30 November 2013)