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Malians in France's Little Bamako worry from afar

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 16 Jan 2013 11:01 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Malians in France fret over escalating war at home

* "Little Bamako" offers solidarity, helps Malians cope

* Praise for France, harsh words for rebels in north

By Alexandria Sage

MONTREUIL, France, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Maiga Cousmane doesn't speak French. He has no money and still no place to live, three months after escaping the chaotic north of Mali, crossing the Algerian border and arriving by boat to France, where he made it to the capital.

But the 23-year-old in leather jacket and jeans feels slightly less adrift among his countrymen in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, often called "Little Bamako" and home to the bulk of France's 100,000 Malian immigrants.

Here, Malians recently and long-ago emigrated depend on kinship, news-swapping and solidarity as they fret over their far-away country at war while cheering France's military intervention.

At the largest Malian "foyer" - a hostel for temporary workers that is part community centre and mosque - a group of men crowded around a counter on Tuesday, drinking coffee and loudly discussing the latest fighting between Islamist rebels and French forces while eyeing satellite TV news from Mali.

In a crowded dining hall, women in colourful headdresses served stewed chicken and rice from enormous tureens. Older men in traditional robes shuffled back and forth to an adjoining mosque for prayers.

Cousmane is still thinking mainly of family members back home. He said he had witnessed a man's hand being cut off and another man being shot in the rebel violence that drove the family to flee its village for the desert city of Timbuktu, where the soaring price of rice meant they went hungry.

"We all know someone who has lost relatives," said Cousmane, speaking in Bambara, Mali's most widely spoken vernacular, before falling silent.

PATRIOTISM AND DISBELIEF

Malians in Montreuil, who mostly come from the more populous south, have always been a tight-knit, sociable and welcoming group. The war that now envelops their country has jolted the community, drawing it even closer, many said.

"Because we're not there we think about Mali all the time," said Cisse Massire, from the west of the former French colony.

The "foyer" provides some measure of comfort amid the rising feelings of powerlessness and insecurity.

Hidden behind a non-descript facade, it replicates in miniature the bustle of a Bamako market, complete with rickety stalls selling peanuts, batteries, flip-flops and cigarettes, and a makeshift barber shop offering 5 euro (${esc.dollar}6.67) haircuts.

In a blacksmith's workshop in a shack at the back of the courtyard, a small group of Malians crouched over a small charcoal fire pit and anvil, forging rings and bracelets under the eye of an older man.

"Even if France is the best country in the world, it's not Mali," said the older man, who did not want to give his name, eating stew with his right hand in the traditional manner.

The men praised France's military campaign and reserved only harsh words for the al Qaeda-linked rebels, calling them "Arabs" from the north who in no way represented the Malian people.

"They are assassins. They want to kill Muslims. A Muslim would never take arms against another," said the older man, his voice rising.

Back at the cafe counter, a hush fell over the room as the images of wounded men and women in Malian hospitals flickered over the television screen.

"Mali is hurting now," said Abib Drame, a grey-haired man called "grandfather" by the assembled group of Malians.

He said the community had been frustrated by the West "closing its eyes" to Mali's terrorist threat before France's intervention on Friday, which gave them renewed hope. "God loves Mali. We're a secular country. We've never hurt anyone."

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