A few days ago, on Friday March 23rd, I managed to reach an MNLA fighter called Intarhia on his satellite phone. When I called, he was in a 4×4 that was being driven across open desert, seemingly at top speed going by the incessant roar that formed a trying backdrop to our conversation. This a transcript of our interview:
Andy: How are things where you are right now?
Intarhia: For us, things are going very well, hamdullilah. We are to the north of Timbuktu. A week ago we liberated certain zones in the region of Timbuktu, certain cercles [administrative regions] and towns. Thirteen towns and villages in all.
A: So not Timbuktu yet. That must be the next stage mustn’t it? The city itself?
I: Yes, Timbuktu will probably be the next place. In a few days, inshallah, all of Azawad will be free.
A: Will it be a big challenge to Timbuktu for you and your men?
I: Not, it’s not something big. It’s a little thing.
A: When you have liberated a village or a town, what’s your strategy? Do you leave some men there to keep order?
I: Yes indeed, that’s what we do. We leave a certain number of men to ensure the security of the village and maintain order, and to help the population, raise the flag. That’s it.
A: And do you take care of humanitarian issues too? If there are civilians in distress who don’t have enough to eat etc, do you help?
I: Yes, indeed. We help in any way we can.
A: Will the events in Bamako in the last few days and the coup d’état, will they help or hinder your cause?
I: The coup d’Etat…if they accept talks for independence, then there’s no problem. But not if they act like the last President, like the old government.
A: But would you prefer to have ATT or Capt. Sanogo in front you. Who’s better, or is it all the same to you?
I: They’re the same for us.
A: So would you say that the morale among your fellow fighters is very good right now?
I: Yes our fighters have good morale. They also have the capacity.
A: And how do find supplies, food and drink and all that. Is it hard or can you organise that aspect easily?
I: No, we organise that very easily. Very easily. Even before, back in history, we were able to organise our struggle, our combat, everything.
A: So you find enough to eat whilst you’re on the road. People give you stuff to eat. Is that how it works?
I: We have everything we need. We have food, we have fuel, we have everything. We need nothing, except Azawad today. Liberation, that’s all we need!
A: Yes, of course. No, I just want to know where it comes from. Is it sourced locally, or does it come from elsewhere? From Algeria?
I: It comes a bit from everywhere. Even neighbouring countries know that we need help today, financial help and all that. Even Mali is looking for help, so all the more reason for us, the army of Liberation, to do so.
A: Are there Arab and Songhai fighters with you at the moment?
I: Yes, all the ethnicities of the Azawad are with us. Even the Peulh.
A: So I just want to talk about certain accusations that have been leveled in the international press, to get your opinion on them.
A: They say that you are mercenaries who have come back from Libya. What do you have to say to that?
I: We aren’t mercenaries. We’re here for the liberation of Azawad, which has been occupied for more than 52 years by the enemy. We aren’t mercenaries. He who thinks like that…it’s a lie. France came here to our home, to take over these lands. Then she handed them over to Mali in the 1960s. And until today, France hasn’t been able to come back and separate us again.
A: And people also say that you’re in alliance with Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. What have you got to say about that?
I: AQIM is a project that comes from our neighbouring countries. It’s their project. It’s their way of managing and controlling the situation here. But they can’t do anything against us. Yes. They see an empty territory, like Azawad, and they want to insert their project into Azawad. And Mali says nothing. We’re here suffering in Azawad thanks to their project. Yes.
A: And so, after the liberation of the country, do you intend to also liberate the country from Al Qaida? That’s to say to chase Al Qaida out from Azawad?
I: Yes indeed. Yes, indeed. When we liberate the country we will chase all our enemies from Azawad. ALL our enemies!
A: OK. But there’s still the status of Iyad Ag Ghali, and his militia that is called Ansar Eddine. It’s creating plenty of confusion here in the west. Because people hear that Iyad wants to impose Sharia law in Azawad. What do you think of all that?
I: Iyad is an ally, an ally of the movement, that’s all. But if he does something like that he’ll be chased away. We won’t even recognize him anymore.
A: OK. So that’s to say that you’re together for the liberation, but you’re not together when it comes to imposing Sharia law and that kind of thing of afterwards.
I: No. Everything decreed by the UN, the United Nations, and in accordance with all UN law, yes?
A: Yes, but just to stay with Iyad…sorry to repeat the question. So Iyad is an ally. We can understand that. But his project is rather Islamist and people in the west and international opinion, are very confused by that. Because you say you’re not allied to Al Qaida but after all, Iyad is seeking a state governed by Sharia etc etc. The effect of that situation outside the desert is a general confusion..
I: Yes. It’s the complicity of two countries, the complicity of various countries that has put Iyad in that situation and imposed him on our movement. But we couldn’t care less. If he carries on like that, we’ll just chase him out of the country. He’s against everyone. He’ll become like Mali, or Al Qaida or anyone else. Azawad will be liberated from all those enemies.
A: And what do you think about the situation with Colonel Alhaji Ag Gamou [Head of the Malian armed forces in the north east of the country - Ed]. Because after all he is a Tamashek like you and people who don’t know the culture very well think that it’s a contradiction for him to fight against his Tamashek brothers.
I: Yes, indeed. We know him. He’s a brother. And what worries us a lot is that he is with the enemy and he’s shooting at us. The law doesn’t allow him to do that. He will be captured and he’ll be judged under the law.
A: Can you say how many vehicles and men are with you at the moment in your unit?
I: In our unit…we’re divided into bases. In this base here there are 400 vehicles, in one single base. In all we have ten bases. 400 multiplied by ten, makes 4,000 vehicles. All-terrain vehicles.
A: And that’s in the Timbuktu sector?
I: Yes, that’s in the Timbuktu sector.
A: And in that sector Mohammed Ag Najm is the commander right?
I: Yes, indeed.
A: And so I just wanted to ask if you wanted to say something that I can transmit to the public here in Europe.
I: Only that we, the Azawadians, the Africans who live in Azawad, we need our liberty, that’s all. Please convey that to the people of Europe. We’ll never stop until we have our independence, even if we have to go to Bamako, or to Kayes. We’ll penetrate that far, just to have our independence. The world mustn’t think that there’s Al Qaeda here with us, and all that stuff. We have absolutely no alliance with Al Qaida, or with any other rebel movement. The only thing that’s important is the liberation of Azawad.
A: OK, thanks.