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STATE Q&A: Assoumane Maiga
A Homeland's Conflict
An OSU student tells of war in Mali and His Imprisonment
Assoumane Maiga was just trying to help his fellow Malians. The agricultural communications doctoral student didn’t plan on his government, a democracy since 1992, imprisoning him for it.
Simmering tensions between Mali and minority desert nomads of the north, the Tuaregs, boiled over in 2012. Al-Qaida joined in, and a war led to the Malian military’s defeat, a coup that toppled the government and Islamists creating their own Sharia law-governed state in the north.
Maiga’s extended family was marooned in occupied Timbuktu. Between finishing his master’s degree and starting a doctoral program at OSU, he went home to the landlocked country in west Africa to try to get humanitarian aid to his family and others. He was arrested during a roundup of coup critics.
Maiga returned to the U.S. in August. His wife, 15-year-old son, 11-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son remain in Mali’s capital, Bamako.
STATE writer Matt Elliott spoke with Maiga.
What was it like to grow up in Timbuktu?
It’s called the door of the Sahara. There is a saying here in the U.S., going to Timbuktu means going to nowhere. But it was a center of trans-Saharan trade. Scholars traveled there to attend the University of Sankoré. As children, we learned Arabic and read the Koran. We went to modern schools and had to learn our family’s trade. Each big family has its own, like carpentry
When did you come to the United States?
I went to school in the capital city, Bamako. I studied English, was an English teacher and worked in development for NGOs. I came to OSU for a time in 2007 to study in agricultural communication through the U.S. State Department. I returned in 2009 with a Fulbright scholarship and started on my master’s in agricultural communication. I finished in 2011, went back home and also applied for the Ph.D. program. When I came back home, it coincided with the conflict.
What happened when you returned to Mali?
The Malian army was defeated but overthrew the democratically elected president and suspended the constitution. That was March 22, 2012. I was there. It created confusion in the capital. Islamic groups, the MNLA (the Tuareg group fighting to establish its own state) and others conquered the major cities of Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal and others. In Bamako, which was still free, politicians were arrested. Journalists were arrested.
You made two trips with doctors and supplies to the occupied north area in April and another in May. What did you see?
I saw the city controlled by different people who could not speak my language. I needed a translator. They didn’t know anything about our history.
But the Tuaregs weren’t as severe as the Islamists with whom they were working, right?
Some of them weren’t. There were internationals, too. They were from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chad, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia. Some Tuaregs and some Arabs. They were destroying shrines and mausoleums and implementing Shariah law. They were chopping people’s hands and feet. They were whipping people. They were stoning couples to death. ... It was the Middle Ages.
But the government, not the Islamists, arrested you after your second trip to Timbuktu. How did that happen?
I had been very critical of the military. The military came in three trucks to a meeting I held. They arrested me and took me to a headquarters. I said, “What’s the problem? I’m just trying to help my people.” They said, “It has been reported you are recruiting soldiers for an army, and you have guns. You have money. You have uniforms.” I said, “I don’t know what you guys are talking about.” They didn’t listen to me. They threatened me with death. They said I betrayed the country. They saw my OSU student ID. My Stillwater National Bank card. My Visa card. They told me I looked like a spy.
You were held for four days in a cell. What were the conditions like?
They kept me in a dark room with people who used to steal and kill. The first night, I was one of five people in a cell that was only three square meters (about 32 square feet). There was a toilet there, but it was not clean. Can you imagine how devastating that was? You study in the U.S., you go back home to support your country, you have the opportunity to help people, and someone arrests you. I had no idea what they were going to do. But my arrest was not what was important to me. What was important to me was the people.
Tell me about your release.
They told me to write a statement that I was not involved in anything. They took me to the head of the gendarmerie where I was held, and he said, “Oh, Mr. Maiga, I’m very sorry. Everything we were told about you was not true.” I left and continued with my humanitarian work. Unfortunately, I kept receiving anonymous threats on my cell phone.
What were they saying?
“You’d better be careful.” Things like that. “You have to control what you are saying.” Someone would call and say, “Come and meet us at this place and time.” Or they’d act as if they knew me. I was being followed. I contacted my Ph.D. program at OSU and decided I could best serve the country by being in the U.S. That way, I could speak about the situation. Today, we are very happy because Timbuktu is free. Gao is free. We have an interim president, the one who made the call to France and asked for their military help. But it is not finished because the Islamists ran away to the mountains. They still are a threat to the world. They are there and heavily armed. It’s like Afghanistan now.
What happened to your family?
Everybody is OK. My brothers, sisters, cousins, sisters and relatives are still in Timbuktu. The roads are not open yet, but people still travel on the Niger River by boat to get there. I miss my wife and kids. I hope they can join me here one day.