Sunday, December 15, 2019 05:21:19 PM
Untroubled by time, the mighty Niger River glides through the Sahel city as women wash their clothes in its brackish waters and cows slumber nearby in the heat.
But this peaceful image is an illusion, for Mopti, a city of 150,000 people, is on a dark, downward spiral.
Not too many years ago, well-heeled foreign visitors flocked to the so-called Venice of Mali.
They would spend a couple of days here before heading towards the cliffs of the Dogon country to gape at its fabled cave-dwelling community or tour the region's exquisite 19th-century clay-walled mosques.
But the flow of tourists, along with their precious currency, has dried up.
The jihadist conflict that erupted in northern Mali in 2012 has swept into the country's centre, igniting a tinderbox of ethnic resentment and stoking fears for the future of this fragile nation.
Today, Mopti finds itself surrounded by a sea of conflict and criminality that has left thousands of dead. According to UN figures, as many as 70,000 people in the region have fled their homes.
The once-tranquil regional capital is haunted by displaced villagers who have sought a haven from conflict. Unemployed tourism workers survive doing menial jobs. And others have their own well-founded reasons to crave the anonymity of the city.
One such person is Ibrahim, a 45-year-old who pushes a two-wheeled cart through the streets, his face barely visible in the swaddling of a turban. His figure melts unnoticed into the crowds of hawkers and gawpers.
Ibrahim-not his real name-has a secret past.
Even his wife is unaware of it. For four years, she believed that he had gone abroad to work, "for adventure," as poor West Africans tend to say about the lure of migration.
In reality, he had joined the jihad.
The poor shepherd became a gunman with the Katiba Macina, a ruthless Islamist group founded by radical Mopti preacher Amadou Koufa.
Koufa is a Fulani, from an ethnic group also known as Peuls, who are scattered across the Sahel and have deep traditions of nomadic herding.
One day, jihadists came to Ibrahim, who is from the Songhai ethnic group, as he was grazing his sheep near the family's encampment.
"Fight and enforce divine sharia law, and you will be well paid" was their promise.
Struggling to feed his six children on his meagre income, Ibrahim agreed. "I was so poor I couldn't refuse," he timidly says today.
The jihadists paid him 300,000 CFA francs ($507, 457 euros) a month -- 20 times what he earned before.
But the fortune came with a price.
His job was to kill.
Over the next four years, he attacked villages and murdered "lots of people", in his words.
Three years ago, Ibrahim deserted. But he cannot return home for fear of reprisal from his former comrades in arms.
He has changed his name and lives anonymously. He earns a few francs by delivering goods with his pushcart, but every day dawns with dread.
The tentacles of the jihadists are reputed to be everywhere.
In the city, so it is said, their eyes are everywhere, thanks to a network of informers. They have a base in a village on the northern bank of the river.
They also have a lucrative line in attacking river traffic.
"That boat goes up to Timbuktu," says a man, pointing to one of the large canoes, also called pirogues, that ply the Niger at Mopti.
"But I wouldn't advise you to get aboard. The jihadists board the boats, attacking travellers and stealing goods."
Just 13 kilometres (nine miles) away in Sevare lies a base of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.
Its troops, whose numbers were beefed up in late June after violence engulfed the region, are hunkered down between barbed-wire fortifications.
Branded in everyone's mind are memories of a bold attack in June 2018 against the headquarters in Sevare of the so-called G5 anti-jihadist force, which killed three people.
Since then, the bulk of the five-nation force has relocated 650 kilometres (400 miles) away-to the Malian capital Bamako.
Central Mali's disastrous shift from ethnic mosaic to conflict zone can be traced back to events in 2012.
In March that year, a coup in Bamako overthrew the government and the army collapsed.
Into the security void stepped a militant Tuareg group, the MNLA, and a jihadist ally, Ansar Dine, which rampaged across northern Mali and reached as far as the centre.
Another organisation, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), surfaced in the northern city of Gao and occupied villages in the Mopti region.
Weapons flooded into the region from the north. In the countryside terrified villagers began to organise the protection of their communities.
Fingers of suspicion began to point at the Fulani-alleged "terrorists" who suffered a wave of arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings.
The Fulani begged for help from Bamako to shore up their defences. None came, reinforcing the Fulani's sense of being abandoned.
"The transitional government refused to provide arms, fearing that they would be used against them one day," says Boukary Sangare, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a South African-based think tank.
"In the end, dozens went off and joined armed groups that offered protection."
The Fulani's conviction that they had just been sold out meshed with long-standing resentment which the jihadists adroitly exploited.
In rural central Mali, a region with the lowest proportion of schooling in the country, anger flared against a government and ruling elite who scorned the nomadic Fulani as "landless", with no ties other than to their animals.
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