Where in the world is Mali?

There’s probably not a single country left in the world today where one would not find Filipinos. In any war that breaks out anywhere, any major disaster that happens on land or at sea, in every hijacking of a cargo boat, or any terrorist attack in a crowded public place in any big city—chances are one of the victims could be a Filipino worker. This has made the everyday outlook of the average Filipino global. In the short span of 40 years, we have, by necessity, become interested in what is happening in the rest of the world because of the broad dispersal of our overseas workers.

Yet, our perspective on global events has remained painfully parochial. The first, and often the last, thing we seek to know in the face of events like these is whether there are Filipinos among those who have been killed, kidnapped or hurt. Seldom do we concern ourselves with knowing what’s happening to the countries in which our people live and work or, even less, what we can do to help or express our solidarity with the inhabitants of these troubled places.

I know that it’s often been said that we are not a big power, and that therefore it’s not for us to say anything that could jeopardize the position of our overseas workers. That indeed may be so. But even from the narrow perspective of national interest, it certainly behooves us to understand the general state of the countries, regions and continents to which we deliberately send our workers.

A good case in point is North Africa, which has been the site of the world’s most dramatic political transformation in the last two years.  This whole region continues to be perilously in flux. The hostage-taking last Thursday by so-called Islamist militants at a natural gas field in eastern Algeria cannot be separated from the political upheavals that produced the dramatic regime changes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

According to the initial sketchy reports, more than a hundred individuals, mostly foreigners, were herded and held at gunpoint by members of an armed militant group. Algerian special forces launched a hurried rescue when they saw that the gunmen were about to move the hostages and transport them to neighboring Mali. Many hostages, including a number of Americans, Japanese and Europeans working at the gas plant, were killed in the crossfire.  Two Filipinos were among the seriously injured, while 34 other OFWs were reported to be among the 600 workers who were safely pulled out of the site.

What was the motive for this hostage-taking?  The Islamist gunmen announced that it was in retaliation for the French intervention in Mali, a huge landlocked country just below Algeria. But the basic goal appeared to be no more than to take foreign captives and hold them for ransom. Mali occupies a large portion of the Sahara desert. Since 2008, its northern section has been under the control of highly-mobile al-Qaida militants and other armed groups engaged in the trafficking of drugs, arms and humans. National borders mean nothing to these roving bands. Pursued by military forces in one country, they move to the next with ease. Their intrusion into what was supposed to be a tightly-secured gas field in neighboring Algeria demonstrates their boldness and capability.

This whole region remains a site of tremendous political instability notwithstanding the ouster of its infamous tyrants. Indeed, following the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime in Libya, a market in assorted firearms began to flourish in that region. Sophisticated weapons that had been part of Gadhafi’s arsenal quickly found their way into the hands of various militia groups, including those linked to the al-Qaida, that roam the vast desert stretching from Mauritania to Niger.

To all intents and purposes, Islamist forces identified as the “al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM) have taken control of Northern Mali, dislodging the Tuareg secessionist rebels with whom they had been previously in alliance. The Mali government itself is in a difficult transition following a military coup in March 2012.

France, Mali’s former colonial ruler, has taken upon itself the responsibility of helping the interim government push back the Islamist offensive and prevent the radical Islamists from extending their control to Bamako, the capital city located in the southern part of the country where most Malians live. Observers say this will not be easy. Even Algeria opposes the French meddling in Mali. Intervention in Mali could be to France what the invasion of Afghanistan has been to the United States, a burdensome war without a foreseeable end, an adventure that could drain the energy and wealth of France.

The allusion to Afghanistan is what is making the United Nations sit up and take a serious look at the situation in Mali. The UN prefers that any intervention be led by an African coalition of forces. But such a coalition is probably more difficult to put together than the Arab alliance that failed to congeal against Gadhafi. None of these African countries would risk provoking retaliation from al-Qaida. Who then will care about Mali?

Until recently, I myself wasn’t even sure where Mali was exactly. But, one day, my 3-year-old granddaughter Jacinta, who loves locating the most obscure countries on a globe, showed me where it was—on the western side of the vast African continent, boxed in by Algeria to the north, by Mauritania to the west, by Niger to the east, and by Senegal, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso to the south. Knowing where countries are on a world map has truly become a necessity for every Filipino in this globalized era.

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