Story Publication logo June 15, 2012

Mali: Limbo Land

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Europeans drew Africa’s borders long ago. Today these lines are often deserted and sometimes...

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Image by ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

In Koro, eastern Mali, nerves are raw in this town of 14,000 souls that live on a broad, arid plain near the border with Burkina Faso. A rumor rippled out from Koro's marketplace early on a hot May afternoon, that rebel fighters from the north -- Islamists or Tuareg nationalists, no one knew for sure -- would attack the next day, Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. By Thursday night, when I went to interview Koro's mayor, Soumaila Djinde, at his home, the rumor had become more specific: He told me that two local merchants had come to his office around 6 p.m., worried because they had heard that fighters from the Islamic Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine -- which participated in the fall of Timbuktu on April 1 in the rebellion that has split Mali in two -- would visit Koro to show their strength and pray at the town's large mosque. The mosque -- a beautiful building of iron-rich, red-brown mud with high, pointed towers along each wall and thick ornate wooden doorways cut from giant baobab trees -- was built hundreds of years ago by Dogon tribesmen from whom Djinde is descended.

Koro had been raided once already, on April 6. No one was hurt, but the incident rattled nerves and people worry about new attacks. "I hear these rumors all the time," Djinde told me, speaking in French. "Just the same, you should not show yourself in town." Good advice, given that I am tall, with white hair and white skin that makes me a good kidnapping target for the likes of Ansar Dine or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, both of which roam the north with impunity. I left Koro the next morning, Friday, and crossed into Burkina Faso. When I called Djinde later that day, he said the raid never came. But that was no comfort to him or the village of Koro. "We live in confusion here," he said.

People in villages and towns like Koro, across the high cliffs and volcanic bedrock of the ethnic Dogon country, now find themselves on the edge of Mali's new and toxic northern frontier, face to face with a rogue Tuareg state, the so-called Azawad, and largely without a government to protect them. Add to the mix Islamist groups like Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda, whose motives are different from the Tuareg nationalists, and the confusion is complete. For the Islamists, this is a religious war for the supremacy of Muslim sharia law. For the nationalists -- who have banded together under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known by its French acronym, MNLA -- this is a war for national and ethnic independence. The rebels don't have the resources to invade and occupy Mali's more densely populated and verdant south, but they need basic supplies to hold the north and the raids serve that purpose. Towns like Koro are probably not at risk of being taken outright, though they have things the rebels need: food, cars, tires, and spare parts. Koro has not been raided since I left, but there are frequent reports of banditry in villages on both sides of the Mali-Burkina Faso border north of Koro.

Tuaregs are well known for their raiding culture, a reputation that is many hundreds of years old. The history of the Sahara is full of stories of dark, turbaned men on camelback appearing suddenly atop a sandy ridge or out of the dust to attack a trans-Saharan trading caravan, a village, or a European exploring party. The ill-fated Flatters expedition of 1880, which the French commissioned to survey a trans-Saharan railroad, was picked apart by ambush and treachery, reducing a force of 97 men to a dozen stragglers. For all this the Tuaregs have earned the grudging respect and eternal suspicion of the darker skinned peoples of the Sahel. The French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio captures the Tuareg mystique in the opening of his novel, Desert: "They appeared as if in a dream at the top of the dune, half hidden in the cloud of sand rising in their steps..."

But in Koro people feel no such mystique, only fear. Koro is latitudinally in central Mali, in the east of Mopti province, where staples like millet and rice sell for six times what they did a year ago, due to war and little rain last year. Mali, along with the rest of the West African Sahel, from Senegal to Chad, is under the strain of a drought that has put 15 million people at risk of starvation. Now, this conflict has plunged the region into deeper trouble, producing some 320,000 refugees. A third of them are displaced within Mali, while the rest have fled across borders into Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger. Among the Dogon people, in village after village across Mopti province, farmers talk of a season of starvation Mali has not experienced in recent memory.

"We don't have the resources to feed ourselves right now," Moumouni Damango, the Malian government's emergency relief coordinator in Mopti city, told me. "And now this war? We don't have time for this." In Songho, a village in the Dogon cliff country about 20 miles east of Mopti city, an elder named Malick Yanogue said through an interpreter that last year's yields of millet, peanuts, sorghum, and corn were nearly zero. The European and American tourists who once liked to explore the famous cliff dwellings and buy Dogon cloth and wood carvings stopped coming a year ago because of the looming threat of war. "Many people in Songho are eating one meal a day," Yanogue said. "There is not much food to sell, and not many people have the means to buy food." He and farmers in other villages complained that food availability is even worse because many village markets are empty for fear of rebel raids.

On April 6, the same day as the raid on Koro, the MNLA declared the independence of Azawad, just a week after they and their Islamist allies overran the north of Mali, taking the towns of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu one right after the other. They forced the Malian Army back south to the city of Mopti, the provincial capital where the Bani River meets the mighty Niger, 170 miles south of Timbuktu. When Timbuktu fell, gendarmes, bureaucrats, and aid agencies fled many towns and villages in Mopti province, including Koro. Army desertions have also been high, though figures are hard to come by.

Djinde explained to me why there's now such fear. Around 8 a.m. that April morning, six rebel fighters entered Koro in a Toyota Land Cruiser pickup with a partially deflated tire, according to Djinde, who witnessed their arrival. They broke into the empty gendarmerie across from Djinde's office, looking for weapons but found none. Then, Djinde said, they drove to the market where they grabbed a young man off the street who showed them to the offices of the aid agency World Vision. The staff had fled, leaving an elderly watchman at the compound gates. At gunpoint, he opened the gates and offices for the rebel fighters. They took the keys to a Toyota Land Cruiser SUV parked in the compound, as well as a pile of spare tires.

But what happened next is what really worries Djinde and the leaders of Koro's 4,000 evangelical Protestants: Inside the offices, one rebel found a Bible atop a desk. He walked out the gate, Bible in hand, and asked the watchman to tell him who owned the book. The watchman said he didn't know, that he was Muslim and only responsible for watching the gate. The rebel threatened to shoot him if he did not answer the question. The watchman, Djinde said, replied that he was ready to die if God willed it. The rebel tossed the Bible in the dirt and the group drove off with their loot. No shots were fired, no one was hurt. But the Bible story is now well known in town. A Protestant pastor I spoke to asked that I not use his name. He acknowledged that Koro's Christians, who are all Dogon themselves, are nervous, but most have opted to stay.

"We are on our own out here," said Djinde, a 50-year old merchant. He and the government prefect of Koro district, an ethnic Tuareg, reported the April 6 raid in frantic cell phone calls to the Malian Army in Mopti city. Two days later, in answer to the calls, a Malian patrol showed up, including soldiers in a couple of Toyota pickups mounted with heavy machine guns. They poked around, asked a few questions, stayed the night, and left. Djinde threw his hands out in a palms-up gesture. "It's not even worth the effort to call the Army. Koro is in the hands of God."

Later that same day, according to Djinde, turbaned rebels -- likely the same men who entered Koro and found the Bible -- drove into a village that was holding its weekly market day 12 miles northeast of Koro. They stole a truck and shot to death a merchant, though it's unclear what motivated the shooting. The Malian Army took 24 hours to respond to that incident. This is life in Mali's new borderland.

From what I saw during a week on the ground, traveling about 90 miles east across the southern tier of the Azawad, from the provincial capital of Mopti to the Burkina Faso border, the Malian Army appears to be in no shape to do much more than defend the city of Mopti. The defeat in the north followed a March 21 military coup in Mali's capital, Bamako, ending two decades of democracy and leaving the Army in disarray. The rebel groups, who'd launched their rebellion in January, entered the void caused by the coup to race across the north. Many of the Tuareg rebels had fought with Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces in Libya. When Qaddafi's regime collapsed, they returned to Mali with heavy weapons and vehicles looted from Libyan military stockpiles, as well as with experience under fire that Mali's poorly equipped and trained army could not match.

A Western diplomat in Bamako who monitored the war in the north estimates that the Malian Army abandoned more than half its equipment in headlong retreat from advancing rebel forces in March and early April. The Army also suffered mass desertions, though precise numbers are hard to come by. One diplomat familiar with the Malian military said, "People [Malian soldiers] threw up their hands, thinking, 'We are going to go home and protect our families. Who knows what will come next?'"

Now, nearly two months after the end of the fighting, the rebel groups don't agree on what to do with Mali's north. Tuareg nationalists, who have staged five rebellions in Mali and Niger since 1916, have distanced themselves from Islamist motives and declared an independent state, Azawad. It exists as a geographic region north of Timbuktu and the Niger River, an east-west zone covering alluvial sand plains and dunes left by seasonal flooding thousands of years ago. For the Tuareg, the word "Azawad" represents an area of pasture, which reflects their nomadic Berber culture. Traditionally, Tuaregs move with their livestock in search of grass and water, ignoring political borders. In fact, when most of French West Africa became independent in 1960, the borders that suddenly turned eight French colonies into new countries became a bone of contention for Tuaregs across the Sahel, who have long argued that their nomadic culture is independent of these nationalities. Tuaregs in Niger and Mali also say they have been denied full employment, food, and medical resources enjoyed by other ethnic groups, as well as fair treatment by the court systems. Talk of a Saharan Tuareg state has pushed beyond the area of Azawad to also include parts of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mauritania, and Niger. Azawad as a political entity surfaced in the late 1950s, just before independence, with the emergence of political party called Mouvement Populaire de l'Azawad.

In 1995, the governments of Niger and Mali negotiated a peace deal with Tuareg rebel groups that ended a six-year rebellion. The deal offered financial incentives and the broader integration of Tuaregs into positions of importance in the governments and militaries of both countries, where two-thirds of the Tuareg population lives, about 3.5 million people.

But whatever Mali's north is to the groups who now control the region, the conflict has created a new borderland across Mali from Mauritania to Burkina Faso, a distance of 200 miles. This zone crosses the province of Mopti, in the narrow center of this country shaped roughly like an hourglass.

The rebel advance stopped at Douentza, a town south of Timbuktu and about 70 miles north of Koro, across a band of dunes locals call "the sand belt." In most of the new border region, the Malian state has disappeared from all but two fortified towns -- the provincial capital of Mopti and the town of Bandiagara. No Malian soldier stands between Douentza and Koro. And between Koro and the Burkina Faso border, Mali's frontier police have dwindled to two unarmed and nervous men in light blue uniforms. "We are unprotected here," one officer told me. In Koro itself, the customs officers have all gone and the local police force has fled. All along this new border with Azawad, the edges of the Malian state are frayed and hard to determine, as are the frontiers itself.

But Col. Didie Dacko, commander of what remains of Mali's forces in the north, is not coy about his intentions to reinvade the north -- even as neighboring Burkina Faso has launched a mediation effort for talks between the Malian government and Tuareg rebel leaders. Most recently, on June 9, MNLA leaders met in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso's capital, with President Blaise Compaoré, the mediator appointed by the Economic Community of West African States. The talks are ongoing.

"Negotiations are fine," Dacko told me on May 7 at his new headquarters outside Mopti city. "But from a military point of view, let there be no question: We are confident of our abilities ,and we are going to invade and take back the north." Part of what feeds Dacko's confidence is his belief that the MNLA alliance with Islamist rebel groups will not endure. "They have different goals," he said. And he appears to be right. In mid-June, violent clashes in Kidal and Timbuktu between the MNLA and its one-time ally, Ansar Dine, have further confused the question of who governs the north. France and Niger, meanwhile, have warned of a growing influx of foreign Islamist fighters into Mali.

Dacko, a tall, athletic, bespectacled 50-year old in green combat fatigues, studied at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., and is an expert on Mali's troubled north, where he has spent much of his career. He pointed out that Timbuktu, one of the oldest cities in Africa, has been a part of Malian culture for more than 1,000 years. The city has been a center of trade and a hub for the study of Islamic law and history in each of West Africa's three largest empires -- from the Songhai Empire, which fell in the early 1600s, back through the Empire of Mali, which came to power in 1235 with the collapse of the Empire of Ghana. Shaking his index finger, Dacko said, "There can be no Mali without Timbuktu. Such a thing is not possible."

The colonel's previous command, the city and region of Gao, was overrun on March 31. Yet during this interview he sat on the edge of his chair, brimming with confidence, slicing the air with his hand in a karate chop as he spoke. Still, confidence aside, an invasion of the north does not seem possible soon with a rebel enemy in the north emboldened by victory and captured Malian weaponry to add to the material the rebels brought with them from Libya. Dacko admits the rebels have the Army outgunned; he declined to talk about how many soldiers the Malian Army has left, though the figure before the war was about 7,000. The rebels are estimated to number 3,000 to 4,000, between the MNLA and Islamic rebel groups. In the previous rebellions, the Tuaregs were not well armed or trained, and the Malian Army was able to hold its ground with the help of Western military aid.

But the Malian Army's situation has deteriorated even since the rebels halted their advance in early April. On May 1, a second coup attempt in Bamako pitted elements of the Malian military against each other in a bloody grudge match, dealing a hard blow to the war effort. The fighting lasted three days and resulted in the destruction of an elite parachute unit that had attempted to reverse the coup that deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré in March, just weeks before he was to step down, after two terms in office, and hand power to a newly elected civilian president. Touré now lives in exile in Dakar, Senegal. The officers who overthrew him, led by an Army captain, represent the lower ranks who felt the civilian leadership did not give soldiers enough food and equipment to properly fight the rebellion.

In Bamako today, not even three months after Toure's fall, the chain of command has been turned inside out. An Army captain named Amadou Haya Sanogo appears to be running Mali from behind a civilian president and prime minister, and a colonel is acting as one of his spokesmen. A mob of young men, many riding motor scooters, stormed the presidential palace recently to show their support for Sanogo and assaulted the civilian president, who is now in France for medical treatment. Generals are under house arrest. Just who is actually in charge of the government is not clear. It thus didn't come as a surprise when a Western diplomat in Bamako told me flatly, "The Malian Army is not capable of mounting a campaign in the north."

In Mopti city, a colonel is still a colonel, for now. When I met Dacko, he was busy arranging quarters for reinforcements soon to arrive from garrisons in the south. Between questions from orderlies and signing paperwork, he lectured me on the geography of northern Mali. "The region is ethnically diverse," he said, looking at me over the top of his glasses. "You'll find Fulani, Songhai, Arabs, Dogon, Bambara, and Tuaregs. It is not exclusively Tuareg territory and never has been." Dacko himself is an ethnic Bobo from the southern region of San near Burkina Faso. Taking off his glasses, he said, "Technically, north of us, this is not even the Azawad. This is the Gourma region, south of the Niger River. This area is more ethnically Fulani and Songhai and Dogon. Anyway," he added, "if this were only about Azawad, this thing would not be so difficult. But the presence of al Qaeda and these other Islamist groups, they have really complicated this situation."

In Koro, late on the evening of May 10, I was worried as Soumaila Djinde, the mayor, walked me to the courtyard gate of his house after our interview. He'd just told me about the rumored visit by Ansar Dine in the morning. I wondered if my rented Land Cruiser was fast enough to outrun a rebel pickup truck. Down the street from Djinde's house, the green, yellow, and red flag of Mali snapped in a hot wind above the shuttered gendarmerie. We couldn't see the flag through the darkness, but we could hear it flapping. In my mind the colors symbolized, unintentionally, a Mali divided -- verdant south and desert north, both regions bound up in power struggles.

I told Djinde I would leave in the morning. Then I asked him if he was afraid of rebel raids and why he stayed in town. "Of course, I am afraid, but I was born in Koro," he said. "We are Dogon here and this is our country. My family and I will stay." I asked what he thought would happen to Mali, his other country. Djinde folded his arms and stared at his feet. "I don't know. In Bamako, they have so many problems. It's like the capital is its own state. I think they've forgotten about us."


war and conflict reporting


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