Worries over military coup in Mali felt in Utah

Published: Tuesday, March 27 2012 4:33 p.m. MDT

Civilians cheer as mutinous soldiers drive past, in front of a backdrop of burning tires, in Bamako, Mali Wednesday March 21, 2012.

Harouna Traore, Associated Press

MURRAY — A military coup in Mali has reverberated more than 6,000 miles away in Utah for humanitarian groups and the families of students interning there.

Utah has several ties to the West African state. Yeah Samake, a BYU graduate, is running for president of Mali and is the executive director of the Raising Mali Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to expand educational opportunities.

Another nonprofit, the Ouelessebougou Alliance for Africa, is based out of Murray.

Small Utah and Mali flags poke out of a vase at the the office for the Ouelessebougou Alliance for Africa. Jen Beckstead, the alliance's executive director, said from what she's heard from the group's field director, people in Mali are not happy about the coup.

"We're obviously concerned with what's happened there," Beckstead said.

On March 21, a group of soldiers launched a military seizure of power, attacking several locations in the capital city of Bamako including the presidential palace. President Amadou Toumani Touré, who was stepping down at the end of his term this year, has since been in hiding.

The coup came four days after Democracy Day, also known as Martyr's Day, when Mali honors the approximately 300 pro-democracy demonstrators who died 21 years ago in a clash with the military.

"Sad and ironic how Mali has stepped back in time," wrote Samake's wife, Marissa Samake, on her blog. "May those 300 lives not have been lost in vain, may democracy rein free and fair again, for despite its weaknesses, the will of the people needs to mold the future of our country."

Marissa Samake is also a BYU graduate.

Beckstead said the coup hasn't affected her organization's work an hour south of the capital, but their field director, like many in Mali, feels "uncertain" about the future.

"He said a lot of businesses are closed," she said.

University of Utah students Elizabeth Jessop and Kyle Rehn, who are in Bamako interning for Yeah Samake's presidential campaign, said they have been "living on the edge" the past week.

"We were downtown when we heard there would be unrest," Jessop said. "By the end of the evening, there was regular gunfire. It was almost impossible to sleep."

Jessop said she feels safe, however. Most of the gunfire, she said, was people shooting in to the air and wasn't "threatening." Jessop had to tell her mother to stop reading about the coup because she didn't want her mother to worry, she said.

"It didn't help that I was reading everything I could online," said her mother, Cindee Jessop. "She said it's not as bad as the western media makes it out to be, but it sure seems bad to me."

The focus of Yeah Samake's campaign has expanded since the coup. He must now work to ensure there is an election in order for him to even run for office. His campaign website indicated he is working with leaders of other political parties to create a "united front," restore democracy and hold elections in April.

"(Samake is) very hopeful that this will be resolved in a peaceful manner," said Fred Johnson, chairman of the board of Mali Rising Foundation. "We really see this as an anomoly that will be resolved diplomatically."

The U.S. State Department condemned the coup in a statement Thursday.

"We echo the statements of the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States and other international partners denouncing these actions," the statement said. "We call for calm and the restoration of the civilian government under constitutional rule without delay, so that elections can proceed as scheduled."

E-mail: hschwarz@desnews.com

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