TIMBUKTU, Mali – Hundreds of Malians are gathering in the northern desert town of Timbuktu this week in an attempt to reconcile wounds in this country, which was divided in two for nearly a year by Islamic extremists who amputated the hands of suspected thieves and whipped women for going out in public without veils.
After the militants were chased from the cities by French troops, Malian soldiers killed civilians suspected of having links to the jihadists on the mere basis of their ethnicity, prompting a mass exodus of Arab and Tuareg residents who fled for their lives. More than a year later, some 200,000 have yet to return from refugee camps in neighboring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.
The talks in Timbuktu are being held to try to get all Malians to reconcile.
"There will be representatives from all the communities in the region, and we will be highlighting the reasons for the crisis and what can be done to advance reconciliation and the return to peace to Mali," said Oumou Sall Seck, the mayor of Goundam, who is attending this week's talks. "But it's a long process of reconciliation that starts today."
The fabled town of Timbuktu fell under the control of al-Qaida militants and other jihadists in early 2012, who soon began imposing a harsh interpretation of Islamic Shariah law. A French-led military operation ousted the militants from power in January 2013, though the area has remained roiled by insecurity. Remnants of the radical Islamic groups have attempted suicide bombings and other attacks in recent months.
And amid the insecurity, there has been little movement made toward seeking justice for the Arab and Tuareg victims who were killed in reprisal attacks after the Islamic militants fled.
"Malian refugees are still afraid of coming back because of the insecurity and the Malian army thinks they are rebels," said Hamata El Ansary, who is representing the Malians still in Burkina Faso. "The state should understand there is no problem between the communities, but there is a problem between them and the government, and between the communities and armed groups in the area."
In addition to talks on reconciliation, this week's conference also will discuss ways to promote development in northern Mali, where a lack of economic opportunity over generations helped foment the rebellion. And organizers hope the talks will allow communities to share their opinions with the federal government on how to proceed with reconciliation.
The top issue remains stalled negotiations with the ethnic Tuareg rebels who have long sought independence for northern Mali, which they call Azawad. In January, the rebels withdrew from peace talks with Mali's government, saying they were intended to emphasize reconciliation without addressing the group's political grievances including their push for autonomy.
"The state is going to listen to local groups and take their requests into consideration. It's on this basis that the government is going to sign agreements with the armed groups who claim to represent Azawad," said Chirfi Moulaye Haidara, who is representing the Malian government at this week's meetings.
The conference will give people a chance to talk, said Silvia Chiarelli from the Center For Civilians in Conflict, which is taking part in the discussions.
"It's a good starting point for a discussion," Chiarelli said, "but putting it into action will be another thing."
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