Since last Thursday, we’ve been trying to figure out what’s happening “in the north,” where a morphing coalition of Islamists and Tuareg tribesmen are fighting the French and Malian armies. And everybody in Mali’s capital, Bamako, a city of 1.8 million, seems to know the answer. But no two people know the same thing.
Wizened old interpreter Mr. Ba tells us that the liberated towns “in the north” – a vague geographical term in Bamako – have been closed off by the French liberators. Our guide, Fili, says the towns are open to anyone, but there’s no way to get into the Sahara, which lies to the north of them. Falli, a cocky, young med school dropout-turned-souvenir salesman, confidently claims that he can get anyone beyond the frontline and into the Sahara because he knows the right people – a feat that Doctors Without Borders says is currently not feasible. A Malian journalist just back “from the north,” meanwhile, says anything is possible if you manage to sweet-talk the guys manning the checkpoints on the highway.
Mali’s capital, Bamako
Talk of the Tuaregs is equally discordant. They are, alternately: easily found in Bamako (where there are plenty of Tuareg costume-jewelry kiosks and travel agencies for trips to the Sahel – the strip of semi-desert between the Sahara and the savanna – but all closed); they mostly remain “in the north”; they have given up headscarves to blend in with the Bambara population after a wave of anti-Tuareg pogroms in the south; they have fled to Algeria and Mauritania across the desert, like they always have when trouble got brewing (there have been three Tuareg uprisings since the 1960s); and they never were sedentary to begin with. Half of Bamako-ites seem puzzled by the very idea of a separatist Azawad state, declared unilaterally by one of the Tuareg nationalist movements after the current rebellion began in 2012 (“We are one nation!”), while the other half harbor a dull resentment about Tuaregs – who physically resemble Arabs – considering themselves white.
The only topic on which the locals speak in unison is their nightmares about an Islamist take-over. And the general sentiment when we share our plans to go north is, “well, it's completely safe now. So you be very, very careful.”
We promise that we will.
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