The sun had yet to rise and Ada Diallo was preparing for morning prayers when gunfire rang out in her village in central Mali. The 55-year-old ran through the darkness to the home of the local spiritual leader.
Inside, some 50 women cowered in a single room, praying for their lives.
They had been caught in the deadliest attack yet of a new conflict in the West African nation, one driven by fear and suspicion over alleged ties to extremist groups that have moved in from the vast, arid north. The insecurity crisis has become so serious that Mali’s prime minister on Thursday resigned.
The attack late last month killed 154 people in Diallo’s village, which is dominated by the Muslim Peuhl ethnic group. The ethnic Dogon militia suspected in the massacre accuses Peuhls of collaborating with extremists, a charge they deny. The militia leader in turn denies that his fighters, suspected by some Peuhls of collaborating with Mali’s military, carried out the attack.
As both sides urge Mali’s government to restore peace to the increasingly troubled region after hundreds of deaths last year alone, Diallo’s description of the attack, told to The Associated Press, brought the horror to life.
Five minutes after she took shelter with other women that morning, the attackers arrived on their doorstep.
“They opened the windows and started firing indiscriminately while others tried to make holes in the walls of the house so that they could shoot us too,” Diallo recalled. “Then the men who had been firing on us from the window threw a bottle filled with petrol and it landed 3 meters (yards) from me.”
Amid the terror, she found the strength to make her way to the door. Moments later there was an explosion and the house caught fire.
Running past bodies strewn on the dirt path, she reached another hiding spot.
“I told myself: ‘If I stay here, I’m going to die.’ So I gathered my courage and I decided to run again. I started to hear more gunshots and so I hid again, this time among two dead men. One had been decapitated by a knife and one had been killed by gunfire.”
She eventually found another spot where about 20 wounded women were gathered. They made their way into the countryside, many still barefoot.
From their hiding place in the forest, they watched their village burn for more than three hours.
Around 9 a.m., the women saw several Malian military vehicles arriving and they headed back to the village. As Diallo got closer to her home she started to run, fearing for her husband, Moussa, whom she had not seen in hours.
“When I got there, I found the body of my husband and that of our neighbor,” she said. “I cried with all my might: ‘This is an innocent man, an elderly man who has never harmed others.’”
Other survivors had found her husband’s national identity card, now covered in blood. They handed it to her along with a 5,000 CFA bill ($9) found in his pocket as she wailed in grief.
“We had done nothing wrong and look what happened to us,” said Diallo, who is among more than 200 village residents who now live elsewhere with the support of aid groups.
“My husband, 65 years old, an old man, was just slaughtered with all these other people like a chicken. I am disappointed that our government did nothing to protect us.”
During the day-long long wait to be evacuated to the regional city of Mopti, there was no way to prepare meals because all the homes had been destroyed.
The survivors could not even collect water to drink.
The wells were contaminated by blood from the victims whose bodies had been dumped there.