He says that even though some of the fighters in their entourage went to fight in the Niono area, he was unaware of their battle plans. The men spoke Arabic and Tamashek, a Tuareg language, which he did not understand.
One day, when he went to the corner store, the shop owner told him a war was on, he says.
‘‘I told my friend, ‘Even if the month isn’t over yet, we need to get out of here.’ We walked to the next village, where we found an old man there, and we asked him if he could please give us some water? The old man said he couldn’t give us any water, because we’re rebels. We said, ‘We’re not rebels. Give us some water.’ It was then that a man on a motorcycle came by. The motorcyclist said that we are wearing the clothes of the Islamic fighters.’’
The boys tried to run.
The friend got away. Adama was handed over to the Malian military, which in recent days has been accused of executing dozens of suspected Islamists, including a group of six men who arrived in Sevare without identity cards. Adama may have been saved by the international outcry that followed the reported executions this week, says Atallah, putting immense diplomatic pressure on Mali’s ill-trained and often incompetent army to respect human rights conventions.
‘‘I was frightened,’’ says Adama. ‘‘They said they were going to kill me. ... They said this several times.’’
During the interrogation, especially on the first day, the soldiers threatened to execute Adama if he did not tell the truth, he says. They hit him, he says, and slapped him across his face. It was only on Friday, according to Adama, that the soldiers told him they would not kill him.
‘‘For four days, they kept me in jail with two big people,’’ he says. ‘‘I feel somewhat reassured now, but not totally reassured. Because I am still not free.’’
Child soldiers have been part of the fabric of African conflicts for decades now. In Liberia’s civil war more than 10 years ago, drugged 12- and 13-year-olds were famously photographed toting automatic weapons and teddy bears. However, the standoff this time is between a Western army bound by the Geneva Convention and Western values on human rights, and an enemy that includes hundreds of children. One of the most active groups in northern Mali is al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror network’s affiliate in Africa, which originated in Algeria. In 2008, the group released a video showing a cheerful 15-year-old in Algeria who was suffering from a terminal illness, Atallah says. The Islamists convinced the boy that the best thing he could do with what remained of his life was to die for Allah, according to Atallah, who saw the recording.
‘‘The video shows him smiling,’’ he says. ‘‘They taught him how to drive a van. And then they filmed the van as it left, just before he detonated himself. I wouldn’t put it past them to do this again.’’
Associated Press writer Krista Larson contributed from Mopti, Mali.