MOPTI, Mali – Before Islamists seized the northern half of Mali, Mamadou Sekere sold masks and jewelry in Timbuktu to European tourists who rode camels and slept in the desert under the stars.
Now, Sekere is in Mopti where one of his wives gathers leaves to feed the family. His other wife, who stayed behind when he fled Timbuktu, calls several times a day. He's got 10 children with one and eight with the other, but can only shake his head when asked where they all are now.
Sekere waits for the day when the Islamists leave Timbuktu, where they recently carried out a public execution in front of 600 people and have banned items ranging from perfume to Nokia ringtones. Sekere's handicrafts are hidden inside the walls of his home until he, and the tourists, can return
"Here I am getting by only on the generosity of my friends," Sekere told a reporter from the upper level of a mud home in this central Malian town, now home to thousands of displaced northerners. "There at least I have a plot of land that I can work."
Sekere is one of nearly 500,000 people who fled northern Mali since the crisis began earlier this year. Many, like Sekere, who came to the south have found life difficult because unemployment is high. Here the civilian government is trying to exert authority over the military, whose junior officers launched a coup in March right before elections were to have been held. The soldiers still call a lot of the shots, even though they made a show of returning power to the civilians in April.
Ordinary Malians and international experts alike are not sure what will reunite and bring back political stability to a country that until recently had a reputation as one of West Africa's most steady democracies.
"This is not only a humanitarian crisis; it is a powder keg that the international community cannot afford to ignore," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently.
The Obama administration, France and neighboring African countries are all weighing what will be the most effective policies to halt the rapid success of Islamic extremists in Mali. The 15-nation West African regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has discussed sending 3,000 troops to help oust the Islamist militants from the north.
Many, though, question how Mali's weak military could take the lead on such an intervention.
"All the military force in the world cannot put Mali back together and sustain it unless there is a legitimate political process that the majority of Malians will accept," said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
Analysts believe ECOWAS would need to send more soldiers to take and hold the France-sized area of desert now controlled by the militants.
"There's been a serious mismatch between the type of mission that is talked about and the type of resources that anyone is willing to cough up in support of that mission," noted Pham.
The U.N. Security Council on Friday unanimously approved a plan to back an African-led military force to help the Malian army oust Islamic militants. But the plan still faces delays: The French-backed resolution gives Mali, the West Africans and the African Union 45 days to develop plans to recover the occupied territory.
Representatives of the United Nations, the African Union and ECOWAS are to consider the situation on Oct. 19 in a meeting in Mali's capital, Bamako. The head of the Germany-based U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Carter Ham, said recently that "a military component" would be a part of an overall solution in northern Mali, but he ruled out an overt U.S. military presence.
While diplomats from other countries discuss options, no action on the ground to retake the north appears imminent.
"We're in this period of stagnation, effectively a stalemate in the north," said Gregory Mann, a history professor at Columbia University who specializes in Mali. "Some form of outside intervention is probably both undesirable, inevitable and necessary."
Mali's transitional government has accepted in theory the prospect of the regional military intervention, though those involved in the discussions suggest there is a reluctance to allow foreign troops in Mali's capital in the south.
There has been nominal progress toward restoring democracy after the military coup but there is no clear path for holding fresh elections. The possibility of national elections being held within six months is "extremely slim," according to the International Crisis Group.
"All scenarios are still possible, including another military coup and social unrest in the capital, which risk undermining the transitional institutions and creating an even more explosive situation," said said Gilles Yabi, West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group.
Calls for an ECOWAS regional intervention have prompted protests in Mali's capital in recent weeks, though others have marched in favor of an ECOWAS mission.
Korotoumou Diakite, a 22-year-old student who took part in the pro-intervention march in Bamako this week, said: "I have faith that ECOWAS and the international community so that Mali remains one and indivisible."
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report.