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Blue Man Coup: How Gadhafi’s Mercenaries Broke Mali
Posted on May 16, 2012
By Susan Zakin
This is Part 1 of an in-depth look at the rebellion in Mali. Rebels seized the north of that country in March, throwing a relatively stable nation into chaos. As Susan Zakin explains, the conflict reveals a complex web of culture, ambition and unintended consequences. Part 2 will be published Thursday.
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When outsiders come to Timbuktu in the West African nation of Mali, their first reaction is disappointment. Even Bruce Chatwin, the uber-traveler, called Timbuktu a “tired caravan city” where mud walls crumble to dust and all the color is sucked out by the sun. But the 12th century Saharan city has always carried the scent of adventure: Whether spelled Tumbuto, Tombouctou, Tumbyktu or Tembuch, Chatwin wrote, the name is a synonym for the remote and exotic. Inevitably, the reality must disappoint.
And yet. On April 1, when the Tuareg, the fabled blue men of the desert, captured Timbuktu, along with a hunk of northern Mali roughly the size of France, the world took notice. A military coup March 21 had thrown Mali’s government into disarray when well-armed Tuareg mercenaries from Moammar Gadhafi’s militia seized control of ancestral Tuareg lands in the Sahara—a remote region believed to contain some of the world’s last unexploited reserves of oil, gold and uranium.
Timbuktu, a capital of Africa’s 12th century golden age built on trading gold, salt and divine knowledge, once again became a bellwether for the commerce and culture of empires. And Mali, considered one of Africa’s most stable countries, faced an emergency that threatened to turn it into a failed state and the world’s next humanitarian crisis.
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It’s a story straight from George Clooney’s stack of yet-to-be-produced screenplays: al-Qaida, global cocaine smuggling and a resource-rich African country crippled at birth by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. And the cast is rife with movie star charisma. The Tuareg are among the world’s last remaining true nomads. Their own name for themselves means “freemen.” The Tuareg are a warrior class, traditionally disdaining labor for sport and poetry. Roughly 5 million live in the desert regions of Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso. Although they are Muslim, they are mostly Tuareg, with a matrilineal tradition (legend has it that they were led to the Sahara by a warrior queen in the fourth or fifth century). It is the men who veil their faces, in deep indigo, not the women.
Even the most blasé observers acknowledge that there is something special about the Tuareg, despite a propensity for certain less-than-savory practices, such as slavery and smuggling. Chatwin’s images are indelible: In the spectral gray backwater of Timbuktu, he saw “lean, aristocratic Tuaregs of supernatural appearance, with colored leather shields and shining spears, their faces encased in indigo veils, which, like carbon paper, dye their skin a thunder-cloud blue.”
Others are less romantic.
“They’re professional thieves,” said Peter Chilson, a professor at Washington State University who traveled to northern Mali this spring on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. “We like that, don’t we? There’s a lot of romance about them, and the way they’ve managed to survive in the desert is sort of sexy by living off the Trans-Saharan caravan trade as guides and raiders. The technique was never to destroy these caravans, because that would destroy their livelihood, but to bleed them as they traveled back and forth. It’s the Tuaregs’ job and they’ve been doing it for a thousand years.”
Rebellion is also part of the Tuareg job description, first against the colonial French and later the post-colonial governments of Mali and Niger. Tuareg revolts show up in history like tree rings: 1904, 1916, 1962, 1990, 2006 and now 2012. Rebellion may be culturally hard-wired, but these rebels are not without a cause. Because the Tuareg prized honor above all, a ferocious and successful assault on such a foe could make a French military man’s career. As a result, French soldiers were particularly brutal to them, according to Bruce S. Hall in his book “A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960.” In post-colonial times, the Malian government continued the tradition by marginalizing the Tuareg, who do not have equal representation in government, and whose lands lack many basic services. Dashing as they are to Western eyes, nomads are regarded as second-class citizens by the region’s other ethnic groups.
In the 1980s, the Sahara’s salt caravans dwindled, and desertification made an already difficult way of life even more so. Gadhafi’s guerrilla training camps became pretty much the only gig available for Tuareg men in need of a job.
The Tuareg band Tinariwen, winners of a Grammy Award for best world music album this year, formed in one of Gadhafi’s camps, where young men from remote desert outposts discovered James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. It’s generally acknowledged that rhythm and blues derives from the music of West Africa, particularly Mali (Martin Scorsese described Malian Ali Farka Touré‘s tradition as “the DNA of the blues”), so there is something both tidy and poetic about rock ‘n’ roll—the baby of the blues, to paraphrase Muddy Waters—recrossing the world to resonate with these desert rebels.
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