Mali civilians describe their plight as city of Ségou becomes war's frontline
Malian soldiers keep watch at the Niger river, in the central city of Segou, on 15 January. Photograph: Harouna Traore/AP
Afua Hirsch in Ségou
The Guardian, Tuesday 15 January 2013
The city of Ségou used to welcome visitors with a sign for its industrial zone – a scheme designed to encourage industry in this impoverished part of northern Mali. But now the town has a new welcome notice. Someone has scrawled in broken French in huge red letters on the side of a wall on the outskirts of town: "Our soldiers are at war!"
No one knows how many refugees have arrived here since rebel fighters began advancing further south after months of controlling the vast desert in the north of Mali. But hundreds have fled as towns on either side of the de facto border between north and south became the scene of fierce fighting between Islamists, Malian troops and, since Friday, the French.
One of them was Asadek Dicko, 20, who left his home town of Timbuktu when Islamists seized control there in April, settling in Mopti – the northernmost town in government control. Sitting on a low chair in the thick, Sahelian darkness, lit only by the light of a mobile phone torch, Dicko spoke in hushed, melancholic tones about the fear he felt when the town he had believed was a safe refuge came under threat.
"Timbuktu became like a prison under the Islamists, we thought Mopti would be safe," said the young man wearing a striped shirt and blue jeans. "Mopti was full of refugees from the north like me, but when the fighting started in Douentza and Konna, I could not stay there.