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Bamako, a great sprawl of 2 million people on the Niger River, was in the grip of a gun battle. Soldiers of Mali's new ruling junta, who wore the green berets of the regular army, had been in power all of five weeks when I arrived there late last April. Now they were fighting a countercoup attempt from the former presidential guard, an elite parachute regiment loyal to President Amadou Toumani Touré, the democratically elected leader who was deposed by junior army officers last March, when he had been weeks from retirement and elections to replace him. But by the time his guard -- distinguished from other army units by its members' bright red berets -- made a move, he'd exiled himself to Senegal. They fought on without him.
I spent the evening of May 1 and the early hours of May 2 at my hotel, listening to the popping of small arms and the drone of heavy machine guns. I've been to a dozen African countries over the last two and a half decades, but this was my first coup. Machine guns filled the night with sickening low staccato groans, like the devil clearing his throat. I thought of young men torn apart. Sleep was impossible.
I was planning to travel to Mali's suddenly overwhelmed north, where al Qaeda-allied jihadists and Tuareg rebels had the country's beleaguered military on the run, abandoning the famed city of Timbuktu and large swaths of territory. But first my old friend Isaac and I would have to figure out how to get out of Bamako. When I flew in to meet him right before the countercoup, he looked sad and tired. "We have never known this kind of thing in Mali," he said. "We are not the Congo."
Around 1 a.m. on May 2, I called Isaac on his cell phone to ask whether he thought our trip was still possible. He, too, was awake, though he lived on the south side of the Niger River, much farther from the fighting, near the permanent checkpoint on National Highway 6, the main north road we would have to take. His family had an apartment on the ground floor of an unfinished three-story building where he worked as caretaker in exchange for rent. That night he'd staked out the checkpoint and had confirmed the army was letting buses and cars leave the city after being searched. But he was cautious. Fighting still raged around the state television station and the airport. "The soldiers won't care about me," Isaac said, "but they'll wonder about your motives for traveling north. Right now, anything can happen."
We decided to wait.
Through those early-morning hours the grit of a Saharan dust storm, a fine light-brown talcum, shrouded the lights of Bamako. From my window I could see little, though the sound of gunfire was unmistakable. I heard two explosions like soft crunches, probably mortar rounds. At 2 a.m. I went outside to see whether I could find someone to talk to. The streets were empty. A Toyota pickup full of soldiers in green berets, men defending the new military junta, passed by slowly and quietly, their guns pointed at the sky. I nodded, and a couple of soldiers sitting in the truck bed, faces shiny with sweat, nodded back. I returned to my room and switched on the television to check the state broadcasting station for news. They were showing a French documentary about the biology of earthworms. I went to bed.
Around dawn a powerful thunderstorm woke me. Deafening thunderclaps and flashes of lightning rolled across the city as if to scold the bickering soldiers. Hours later, working at my desk, I heard a sharp bang outside my window. Then came two more loud sounds. I rose from my chair and crept along the wall to the window, where I peered out. There, just off the street about a hundred feet away, a young man using a rope to hang from a densely branched mango tree was knocking fruit loose with a metal pole. Mangoes fell -- bang, bang, bang -- on the corrugated iron roof of a shed. Humbled, I realized I needed to get hold of myself.
Of all the countries on that struggling continent, Mali is one I thought would never fall victim to an African cliché -- the military coup. I have been a visitor to Mali for the last decade, writing about West Africa's colonial borders and focusing on a country whose history I believed immunized it from becoming a Congo or Somalia, crisscrossed as they are by ethnic and religious violence. Since March, however, it had become a study in tragic collapse, caught between the ruins of Mali's democracy in the south and a rogue jihadi state in the north that threatens the stability of West Africa and the security of Europe.
For days, Isaac and I waited. By May 3, I could still hear gun battles from my hotel. There had been no announcements. State television was playing a numbing roll of documentaries, from Jacques Cousteau to a rock biography of Paul McCartney.
I still heard the occasional crackle of small arms. The heavier guns and mortars were silent. Except for a zone blocked off around the television station downtown and the airport, I traveled freely around Bamako, one of the world's fastest-growing cities and one where I have never felt unsafe in any neighborhood. During the week of the countercoup, I walked Bamako for miles. I bought bananas in crowded street markets and drank hot tea at roadside tables; at one, a man told me the U.S. Army could drop paratroopers on the north and solve Mali's problem in a few days. I hired taxis to take me across every bridge over the Niger (there are three), which splits Bamako north from south, and to important nearby towns, like Kati, which has one of the Sahel's largest cattle markets, as well as to the main army base.
On the street one morning, hearing the distant snapping of small arms, I realized that while the rebels were consolidating their hold on a newly acquired rogue state in the north, the Malian army was eating itself in the south, engaged in a bloody fratricidal grudge match. I thought about a contact I had in the presidential guard, a captain who'd been involved in monitoring conflicts along Mali's border with Guinea. I had met him the previous October in a cafe, where he told me about his work settling land disputes between Malian and Guinean farmers. "But we Malians," he had said to me, "we do not argue amongst ourselves. Our solidarity is our strength." When I tried him on the phone this time, he did not answer my calls.
According to Human Rights Watch, in that first week of May, while I was trying to find a way out of Bamako, 20 red-beret paratroopers were forcibly disappeared, and unconfirmed reports said they were executed and buried in a mass grave outside the city. Almost immediately after putting down the countercoup, regular army soldiers began a torture campaign against dozens of surviving red-beret soldiers, including mock executions, severe beatings, stabbings, and forced anal sex with fellow prisoners. Using sticks, guards stuffed rags in the prisoners' mouths to muffle their screams.
Yet what amazed me most about those days in Bamako was that the army was seldom seen, maybe because it couldn't spare the extra soldiers to patrol the city. There was no curfew, no random checkpoints. Life in the streets went on as if people didn't need the government.
Early in the fighting, the evening of April 30, a boyish-looking lieutenant speaking for the army junta had appeared on state television and declared that the countercoup had been crushed. As he spoke, the camera panned to the exhausted faces of other officers around him in green berets and a group of presidential guardsmen in handcuffs. The camera focused on apparently captured weaponry: a couple of mortars, some machine guns, and crates of hand grenades. Despite the lieutenant's claims, the fighting went on for three more days, at times intensely. On May 3, as the gunfire began to abate, the army chief of staff appeared on television to declare again that the countercoup had been put down. By the end of the following day the fighting was over.
I called Isaac, and we agreed this was our chance. The next morning, we bought new tickets and boarded an AfriqueTourTrans bus to the north. After the police checked our identity papers, we took our seats.
Once we were on the bus, a soldier sat in front of me with his automatic rifle between his knees. At every checkpoint on the road, he stepped off the bus to confirm for his colleagues that there were no suspicious passengers -- in other words, no light-skinned young men who might be Tuareg rebels. As for me, no one even asked to see my passport.
I mentioned this to Isaac later. "You're just another foolish tourist who didn't have enough sense to read the newspapers before getting on a plane," he said. "That's your new identity."