Ilagala Ag Amin, a 59-year-old Tuareg from northern Mali’s Kidal region in West Africa, is a wiry, compact man who, when I met him at the Mentao Red Cross camp in Burkina Faso, was wearing a blue cotton tunic and leggings with a black turban wrapped around his shaven head. For visitors and friends he showed off the bullet wounds across his stomach from his days fighting with Libyan forces in Chad, back in 1982, and later with Tuareg rebels in the 1991 uprising against Mali and neighboring Niger, a war that lasted five years. “Five operations,” he said, lifting his tunic and pointing at the scars. “I still have a bullet inside me.” If he could, Ilagala would join the current rebellion that has split Mali between north and the south. “My heart is strong, but my body”—he shook his head—“not so good.”
Ilagala told me his story in May 2012 with the help of an interpreter, and a dozen other Tuareg men speaking broken French and Tamachek beneath a hangar made of millet thatch and a white United Nations tarp. We sat on straw mats. Ilagala folded one leg beneath him, fingers of his hands spliced over the raised knee of his other leg. A comfortable pose for a man accustomed to life in war and in nomad camps, herding animals, the lifeblood of Tuareg wealth and culture.
But Ilgalala is no longer the rebel fighter. He is a war refugee—along with his wife and 10 children—from both Mali, country of their citizenship, and from Azawad, the independent state Tuareg nationalists and Islamist rebels declared in April 2012. The independence of Azawad is the cause for which Ilagala fought as a rebel in the 1990s and one that he still supports.
After the peace accords of 1995, Ilgalala returned to his country, to the central Malian city of Mopti, where, under an amnesty program he joined the Republican Guard, the paramilitary unit that protects Malian dignitaries and government buildings. He worked as a guardsman for 17 years. Then in March 2012, fearing his rebel past would make his family a target of persecution, Ilagala and his family fled as Mali’s Army collapsed in the north. Now they are among some 65,000 people—Tuareg, Songhai, Fulani, Dogon, and Arab—who have sought refuge in Burkina Faso from northern Mali’s troubles.
When I sat down to talk to Ilagala, notebook resting in my lap, he noticed my discomfort as I shifted my weight on the straw mat in the heat of the tent. While the wind blew hard outside, scraping sand across the base of the tent, I pulled a small Fahrenheit thermometer from my shoulder bag. It read 114 degrees. Ilagala watched and squinted. Then he reached forward and tapped my notebook. He said: “A man like you likes to eat salad.” He paused, smiling now, and touched his chest. “But I eat meat.”
The crowd of young Tuareg men around him broke into laughter. One man, bareheaded with his turban loose around his neck, grabbed Ilagala’s hand and raised it high. “This man,” he shouted, “is a great rebel soldier.”
I arrived in Burkina Faso from Mali, via the “red zone,” the soft frontier between Mali and Azawad, West Africa’s newest country. Ilagala and his family took the same route out of Mali that I did. They rode in a convoy of three pickup trucks with other Tuareg families from Mopti, the regional capital of central Mali. Intent on crossing the border into Burkina Faso, I traveled with a guide in a rented Land Cruiser following the old French colonial road that once linked the two colonies, French Sudan (Mali) and Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), east from Mopti about 100 miles along the Mali-Azawad fault line. The farther we got from Mopti, the less we saw of the Malian state.
In Koro, the last town before the Burkinabe border, we found schools closed and police, customs, military and health services gone, evidence that Mali’s national framework was crumbling. Now, we drove across a land that straddles a new, undefined political line. We no longer expected to see a Malian border post on our way into Burkina Faso. But there it was: the green, yellow and red flag of Mali flying above a mud building and wooden hangar. Around us sprawled a windswept iron red tableland with a thin cover of brittle acacia and thorny scrub. We pulled off the dirt road and a young man in a clean blue uniform ducked out from under the hangar and politely asked for our passports. His name was Maiga Soumaila. I told him I was surprised to find him here, given Mali’s new reality. He smiled, as if grateful someone had noticed. The closest rebel-held town, he informed us, was a 90-minute drive north. “We do not sleep well at night,” he said, nodding to his one colleague, making tea under the hangar.
Our passage out of Mali took an hour while the guards rooted about for the rubber exit stamp to make our departure official. The refugee flow from Mali’s civil war had been heavy a month earlier with crowded buses, private vehicles and big trucks piled with families and belongings – probably 3,000 people since the fighting began in January, the guard told us, mostly Tuaregs from Timbuktu and Mopti. But now there was little traffic of any kind. In the half hour since we’d left Koro, we’d seen one minibus packed with travelers, bags strapped to its roof, a routine sight in transport-starved Africa. As we waited, I realized the flag flapping above us, the image of 52 years of Mali’s history as an independent country, marked the new northern edge of Mali, more or less, and the beginning of Azawad, independent barely five weeks.
A few days later, when I arrived at the Mentao Red Cross Camp at mid-morning, before I met Ilagala, a dry monsoon storm was blowing from the east, clouding refugee tents in a dense gray fog of fine dust. Heavier sand moved across the ground, obscuring my feet as I joined my hosts, a group of Tuareg elders. I ran for the cover of a tent, handkerchief wrapped around my face outlaw style. The storm blew dry across the camp for two hours, while much farther south the wall of sand turned into a curtain of torrential rain that swept the region all the way to Ouagadougou, the Burkinabe capital, 140 miles away. The storm underlined the fortunes of the Sahel, where every summer the patchwork monsoon blesses some regions and curses others. In one place or another, this land is always in famine. Last year the rains failed from the Atlantic coast of Senegal to Chad and as I write some 16 million people face starvation if the rains fail again, and they most certainly will somewhere. All this is happening with the added pressure of war in Mali and refugees fleeing the troubles, a total of 350,000 people, most of them from the north. Many have gone to neighboring countries.
“Northern Mali,” a Malian journalist in Bamako, the capital city, told me weeks earlier, “is emptying out.”
About a third of the refugees, up to 130,000 people, are displaced within Mali, a country twice the size of France, while the rest are distributed among Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso with thousands more crossing the borders daily. The 10,000 people in the Mentao camp live along a remote stretch of the border with northern Mali. New warring factions in the north are still emerging. In Kidal, in early June 2012, violent clashes between two main Tuareg rebel groups, the Mouvement Nationale pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (known by its French acronym MNLA) and the Islamist group Ansar Dine, have raised talk of civil war in Azawad. This likely means there will be many more refugees in the coming months, up to 100,000 in Burkina Faso alone, according to UN and Burkinabe officials.
“It’s safer for my family here,” Ilagala admitted when I asked why he chose flight to Burkina Faso over Azawad, the homeland he fought for. “I am not as strong as I used to be.” And there are the Islamists, whom he does not like. “They are forcing Tuaregs to build mosques to stand in one place. But we are nomads,” he explained. “We take our mosques with us. They can’t tell us how to worship.”
The Mentao camp, Ilagala’s home since early April, sprawls for miles across dwindling Sahelien savannah in northern Burkina Faso’s Soum province, about 40 miles from the Malian border. This is a land of windswept sand and deep red volcanic hardpan, dry from September until around May, when the temperamental monsoon surges, dry here and wet there. The occasional enormous baobab, hundreds of years old, bursts from this terrain where farmers plant millet and corn in the sand while bone thin cows and goats feed off the leaves of shea and acacia trees. Mentao, one of a string of such camps along Burkina Faso’s arid northern borderland with Mali, appears suddenly along the road, a few stray tents at first, swelling into many hundreds extending back into the bush to make a tent city of 10,000 people. This is an old camp that was set up to take refugees from the Tuareg rebellions of the early 1990s, with a basic infrastructure of wells for cattle and separate wells for people and borders to separate the camp area from surrounding farmland.
Ilagala’s life, as rebel and refugee, is a calendar of recent Tuareg history. He joined the Libyan Army in 1981 when he was 28 years old, a penniless herdsman from Mali’s Kidal region. He wanted to marry but did not have the means. Years of drought in the 1970s, a period Thurston Clarke described in his book, "The Last Caravan," as “a human and ecological catastrophe,” had destroyed Ilagala’s family herd, dozens of goats and cows. About this time Moammar Qaddafi was looking for mercenaries familiar with the terrain along Libya’s southern borders with Chad and Niger. Ilagala, like many young Tuareg men, had nothing to lose. Qaddafi offered them money, military training, and a chance one day to fight for a Saharan homeland of their own, a political ambition of many Tuareg clans since France withdrew from West Africa in 1960, granting independence to Mali and Niger, where three million Tuaregs live now, more than half their total population.
Ilagala spent four years in the Libyan Army, and much of that time in Chad, which Qaddafi invaded with the hope of securing oil fields beneath the Libyan-Chad border. He threatened to invade Niger as well, though that never happened. By 1988 Qaddafi’s forces were defeated in Chad and forced to withdraw. But Ilagala had what he needed, a bit of money and training. He returned to Mali and found work in Mopti city with the Republican Guard, the Malian military unit responsible for protecting dignitaries and government buildings. His hopes for a peaceful life and a family did not last long. By 1991, alienated by years of discrimination against its nomadic culture, and by massacres in Mali and Niger, Tuaregs in both countries rebelled. All sides have committed atrocities in the rebellions, but perhaps the worst occurred at Tchin-Tabaraden, Niger, in May 1990, when, according to Amnesty International, government soldiers killed several hundred Tuareg civilians after an attack on a police station. A year later the Malian Army launched bloody reprisals against civilians after Tuareg rebel attacks on the city of Gao. It was then that Ilagala shed his Republican Guard uniform in Mopti to join rebel units forming around Gao, including men he had fought with in the Libyan Army.
One of Ilagala’s sons, a boy of maybe nine with short dark hair and a dirty white long tunic, brought a tray with two shot glasses of strong sweet tea, one for Ilagala and one for me. As the wind beat the tent, the men sitting around Ilagala interrupted with their own stories of past wrongs. One man who shouted the loudest said he and his wife watched Malian soldiers shoot to death two men, a Tuareg schoolteacher and a Muslim leader, in the town of Lere, southwest of Timbuktu in 1991. “They burned their bodies with gasoline,” the man said clenching his fists against his chest. “I became a refugee in Burkina Faso back then. I fled again in 2008. This is my third time.”
But Ilagala, who had earned a place of respect and leadership among his peers, raised his hand for quiet and continued talking. “In the north, the Bambara (one of Mali’s largest ethnic groups) took all the best jobs,” he said. “And there we were in our own homeland without any work. Yes, in some places they were also killing us. So we took up arms to fight for our own land.”
Just whose land belongs to who is big question. Mali’s broader history dates back almost 1,000 years, across three empires—the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires, respectively—whose heartlands centered around the great bend of the Niger River. All three claimed Timbuktu, which is just a few miles from the river, within their territory, until the age of empires ended around 1600 and Timbuktu, renowned as a market town and center of Islamic study, settled into a long decline.
Azawad, on the other hand, is technically an east-west desert zone north of Timbuktu and the Niger River, historically important to Tuareg culture as a pastureland. It has always been on the fringe of empire, which is part of the Tuareg point—that they have never been wholly a part of any empire or kingdom but their own. Mali’s present borders are part of the old administrative framework of French West Africa, lines the French drew to divide and rule eight colonies, but they are also lines never meant to define countries. Of course, by the 1960s, the colonies became countries anyway, an event the French never planned for, and the borders remained, which is another source of rancor for the Tuaregs. Under colonial rule, Clarke wrote, “All of West Africa’s trade flowed toward the coast, and the Sahel became a labor pool. Only the Tuareg refused to be integrated into this system.” The Tuareg rebellion that has now sliced Mali in half is the fifth in the Sahel since 1916. The French suppressed the Tuaregs through force of arms, but after independence, Mali and Niger tried to settle problems through a combination of war, negotiations and peace deals. But the deals never endured, just as the rebellions never succeeded, until now.
The rebels have complicated matters by pushing south of the Niger River and geographic Azawad into another region, Liptako-Gourma, which straddles the borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Liptako-Gourma’s history is more closely associated with the Songhai, Fulani and Dogon ethnic groups than the Tuareg, and its largest city, Gao, is the former capital of the Songhai Empire. Still, even now nothing about independent Azawad is official. No government in Africa or elsewhere recognizes Azawad. The Tuareg nationalist and Islamist rebels claim their war is over because they’ve taken the land that is rightfully theirs, yet they cannot agree on how to govern the north together. All of this points to a long-term refugee problem, according to Ibrahima Coly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugeees representative in Burkina Faso. “We believe there will not be a stable solution in Mali by the end of the year,” he said.
Discord filled the tent so that not even Ilagala could control the stream of opinion and anger. “Look,” Ilagala said to me, raising his voice over the din, “we cannot have lives like this where people are fleeing every few years whenever we have a new rebellion. We need something that will last. Maybe that will be Azawad, or something else, I don’t know. But we need to make a solution for everyone that will last a long time. Write that down in your notebook.”