At sunset, the Niger River upstream from the city of Mopti in central Mali, with its gently sloping banks and stubbly greenery, looks just like the Russian countryside (plus longboats), especially given the drizzle. This is unexpected, but after nearly a week in-country we’d gotten used to that feeling. After all, we never expected to be tracking down desert nomads by boat either, did we?
The war in Mali, at the core, is about the Tuareg: Long history of grievances notwithstanding, a separatist faction of this nomadic people started it. Some locals call the entire ethnic group a bunch of al-Qaeda-loving separatists; others say most of Mali's 500,000 Tuareg get a bad rap from a bunch of radicals. So we thought we would track down someone from the Tuareg diaspora in the south, far from the self-proclaimed state of Azawad (a swath of desert bigger than France), and ask what they thought.
Ahead of our trip, I’d collected a small hoard of Tuareg phone numbers, Facebook links and Skype contacts (even one whose profile photo looked like an evil jinn with bad teeth and a salesman's smile). But messages were not returned, potential sources didn’t come online, and the people I reached by phone were based in Mauritania, Burkina-Faso and Britain, spoke only bad French and/or asked me to call them later.
We found no Tuaregs on our arrival in the capital, Bamako, where they are said to have run numerous souvenir businesses. Once, our guide pointed out a policeman who looked like an ethnic Tuareg, but the cop, scowling as he manned a roadblock, didn’t look keen to talk.
On our way north, we passed the shanties built by migrating Tuareg to camp for the night with their herds. The shanties were empty.
I found peddlers in Mopti selling Tuareg headscarves tied to long sticks and bought one. The black Songhai people, who live in these parts, also use this headgear, but our guide warned me that, if I wear it, I might get mistaken for a Tuareg in the streets, given my relatively fair skin and goatee – which could lead to a beating. I stashed the scarf away.
Then, one of the peddlers pointed us to the other side of the river and said that, before the war, the Tuareg lived there. They had all disappeared – by their own volition or someone else’s, it wasn’t clear – and their houses were occupied by squatters, he said, but perhaps we would still want to check it out?
Local officials took the possibility of finding Tuareg on the opposite shore seriously – to the point of dispatching a gendarme to protect us. He was unarmed, but wore Matrix-style shades and a trench coat to match, with an orange life vest over it. We chartered a longboat and crossed the river.
The houses on the other side were clay, the pathways narrow, kids and goats were everywhere – in other words, a typical Malian village. One distinguishing feature was topless teen girls soaping themselves on shore, laughing as we landed. Another was fish, which was everywhere and stank to high heaven. The boatman called the people we saw “river nomads,” fishermen who follow the high water and would leave the place in a couple of months.
They had not kicked out the 70-plus Tuareg families living here before, the fishermen said; nobody had. The Tuareg just got up and stole away in the night right before Azawad was proclaimed.
To prove there had been no pogroms, the fishermen showed us a small barn allegedly housing stuff the Tuareg had not taken with them. The padlock was intact.
“These guys have always denounced Tuareg separatists during previous rebellions,” our boatman, Ishmael, said about the vanished nomads. (There have been three major Tuareg uprisings since Mali became independent in 1960.)
“But days after they left, we caught one of them on television standing among the MUJAO,” he added, referring to one of the three main groups of Azawad Islamists. He sounded hurt and unbelieving, a tone many black Malians adopt when talking about their missing Tuareg neighbors.
Throughout our trip, I had been asking people what they thought about the possibility of letting Azawad go (everybody says no). Here I changed my tune and asked Garba Kwanta, a village official who came out to greet us, whether he believed things would be able to go back to the way they’d been before, and he would live side by side with the Tuareg again, like he had for the past 30 years, by his own count.
“I think only their women will be able to return,” Kwanta said. “They left because their men left. But the men, no. You need to be completely shameless for that. I think they would be embarrassed.”
He avoided talking about his own feelings.
On the last day of our trip (Wednesday), we met a Tuareg lawmaker from the national parliament, living peacefully in Bamako. He told us that only about 3,000 of Mali’s 500,000 Tuareg live outside the desert, and most of them had fled to neighboring countries when the rebellion began, fearing retribution by their non-Tuareg compatriots.
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