STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now let's hear an extraordinary story from another part of Africa. Mali's military retook Timbuktu from Islamist militants earlier this year. But after the army secured that historic city in the desert, local people began disappearing. They were ethnic Arabs, apparently blamed for the Islamist militancy.
The army denied the killings, but an Associated Press team found the body of one ethnic Arab in the desert in a grave so shallow the clothes were visible over the sand.
That prompted AP reporter Rukmini Callimachi to go searching in the desert for more bodies, armed with nothing but a few clues and a shovel.
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: It sounds crazy, but if you see the landscape north of Timbuktu, it's dunes, and they look like sand on a beach before anybody has stepped on it. And so the second that somebody digs a hole, it looks like a disturbance, and standing on any one dune, you can see it. And so initially, the military source that was kind to me said, just take this particular path, go north of Timbuktu, past this monument, take a left at the first little hut that you see and then just start looking.
And the second two bodies we found almost immediately just by walking around and then suddenly seeing an area that looked like it has been disturbed.
INSKEEP: And you quite literally had brought a shovel and you and your driver dug.
CALLIMACHI: I need to underscore that we did everything with the family's permission because the families, at this point, were desperate to have any word of their loved ones. So in each case what we did is we dug just far enough to be able to smell the body, and at that point we went back to town, we went and got the family members, and then they would then take the shovel and dig for the loved ones and identify the remains.
INSKEEP: Were you looking over your shoulder, wondering if the Malian military was going to come after you?
CALLIMACHI: Every time, every time. And in fact (unintelligible) who was grabbed on February 14, who became kind of a symbol of the killings because he was elderly, he was very much loved in Timbuktu and he was the one that I looked for for six months. The day before we found him, we went out to the dune to a spot that had been indicated to us by this investigator that I was speaking to.
He actually sent us to the wrong spot and we dug and dug and dug and found nothing. I called the investigator multiple times and we just felt that something was off. So we got back in our car and we were driving back to town and suddenly these soldiers came out of nowhere. There was no checkpoint there an hour before when we went out and suddenly there was.
And they flagged down our car. They started screaming that we have to get out of the car. You know, we were terrified. We didn't know what was happening. And after about a 20 minute standoff, I got out of the car and walked towards the soldiers with my hands up and he asked to see my accreditation. They asked us a few questions. He never asked me about the bodies and then he let me go.
So had they heard that we were going out there and were they just trying to intimidate us? I don't know.
INSKEEP: I just want to emphasize this is a military that is allied with the West, that was explicitly supported by France, that is supported in some way by the United States, that's battling Islamist militants. What are we to make of the evidence that you found that they're involved in killing civilians?
CALLIMACHI: Right. And I think this is something that the United States was well aware of before the military intervention in January. The international community lead by Africans had asked both the U.S. and France to intervene in Mali in order to remove the al-Qaida threat. And France ended up doing so. The U.S. very much stayed in background because for years and years they were involved in Mali in providing military training with the Malian military.
And to everybody's, you know, unpleasant surprise, one of the people who got military training and who came to the U.S. on scholarships was Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who's the man who led last year's military coup in the capital and who was accused of horrific abuses against his countrymen. So I think at least the United States has sort of gotten a wake-up call about the problems within the Malian military, and the problems are systemic.
They take revenge against civilians that just happen to look like the rebels that they fight.
INSKEEP: Rukmini Callimachi, thanks very much.
CALLIMACHI: Thank you so much, Steve.
INSKEEP: She's a reporter for the Associated Press. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.