Gossi, Northern Mali – The loudspeakers on the mosque blare Quranic passages in both Arabic and the Tuareg language Tamasheq into the empty streets:
“Wherever you are, death will overtake you, even if you are in fortified towers.”
The sun and heat are so intense, it’s difficult to breathe or look in front of you. Sweat streams down your face, burning sunblock chemicals into your eyes, while spiralling gusts of hot wind blow films of sand across your sticky skin. The only solution is to wrap a tagelmoust – a long, cotton scarf – around one’s head and face, like a mummy.
Eyes stare at us from an orange clay block house as we pass – separatist Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) wanting to know who arrived in a strange car.
There is nothing to do here now but wait for war.
The youths of northern Mali are falling in line into one armed organisation or another. Training camps are everywhere, no matter which side you want to join, and the atmosphere is primed for inter-communal violence.
Some Arabs stopped at a Tuareg checkpoint become angry and fire shots in the air. “Who are you to make a checkpoint here?” they demand. “Who put you in control?”
Northern Mali has imploded from a mix of poverty, drought, guns, corruption, marginalisation – and destabilisation following the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi – while the primary vector of this chaos remains the long-suffering Tuareg populace.
It was they who launched the current conflict in January this year, when secular Tuareg MNLA rebels started an uprising against the Malian state, just as they have done four times previously, in revolts dating back to the early 1960s. MNLA fighters say their people have been marginalised and oppressed for half a century, and now they want their own country.
As we pass Tuareg villages emptied of people, the smell of death is all around; the stench rises and falls wherever we go.
Tens of thousands of cows and sheep have collapsed and died, starved for pasture in this year’s drought – their carcasses now melting in the dust.
These are herds that people have spent years building up, through tremendous hardship, often sending their sons to Libya and Algeria to earn a few dollars to send home each month. Year by year, they add an animal here and there – tending them from dawn to dusk with long trips to the well and shepherding them great lengths in search of pastures. They are the pillars of life for the Tuareg, and usually the only thing they own. Watching their animals starve is a crushing blow.
Now the UN says droughts in the African Sahel are set to deepen and become more frequent, as rainfalls dry up and global warming takes its toll – a disaster for all people of the region, almost entirely dependent on farming and animal herding.
The Islamic police station of Timbuktu
A tall, strapping Senegalese man with short cuffed trousers steps out of the police truck holding an entire vehicle mounted machine gun in one hand, ammo belt trailing, as if the weapon were just a cheerleading baton. Seeing me peer through my niqab and tinted window he grimaces and lumbers into the building. His name is Abu Darr Darr, and he is known for going around Timbuktu with a leather camel whip, lashing women who fail to wear hijab – a job that is less and less necessary each day.
Here youths from Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Niger, northern Nigeria and across the Sahel come to join the Islamic police of Ansar al-Din, an al-Qaeda offshoot. The group’s spokesman told Al Jazeera that, unlike secular rivals MNLA, Ansar al Din has no interest in forming a state.
“We don’t put much stock in the idea of an emirate or state,” says Sanda Ould Boumana. “Our mission is simply to institute Sharia law in the areas we control and the areas we will control in the future, God willing.”
Youths who join Ansar al-Din spend their days patrolling the city in search of crime and sitting on the stoop in front of police headquarters slinging their Kalashnikovs and RPGs, turbans and tagelmousts, striking menacing poses much admired by the boys of Timbuktu.
They are immensely proud to wear the official blue Islamic police vest, with custom patch and embroidered writing on the back – clutching their walkie talkies and Thuraya phones, chewing siwak and cultivating iron facial expressions of annoyance and disapproval – masks that sometimes break into shy, embarrassed smiles.
This is something for them to do – better than sitting in the village or following dying animals. Who wants to end up like the old men in the road carrying half dead sheep to market when you can have guns, money, cars, international connections and power? When you can be someone important and belong to a brotherhood and do everything in the name of Allah? When people are afraid of you and look at you with awe?
Inside the cool, air-conditioned dispatch, we meet the men in charge. Police chief Hassan – a Malian Tuareg – and “Adam” – a Mauritanian who participated in the November 2011 hostage taking and killing of a tourist in Timbuktu. Adam says he was going to don an explosive belt and blow up the Festival du Desert , Timbuktu’s annual international music festival, but other commitments prevented him from getting around to it. His eyes keep shifting to my face veil and he grins slyly and looks at the floor- an odd combination of shy and brazen.
“So you are an American,” he says. “Do you know Adam Gadahn?” He shifts the desktop PC and starts looking for videos of al-Qaeda’s most famous US convert. The police computer provides their main entertainment – stuffed with videos of Western military humiliations; exploding Humvees set to a soundtrack of melodic Quranic readings.
Chief Hassan spends much of the day morosely raking his mouse across the desktop and watching the videos. With the populace seemingly having fallen in line, there are almost no “crimes” left to punish in Timbuktu.
Abu Darr Darr enters the office and stows his camel whip atop the highest filing cabinet, his day of work over.
“They said they were going to hit Timbuktu with airstrikes yesterday,” Hassan offers, without moving his eyes from a blurry video of twisted wreckage. “But it didn’t happen. Maybe tomorrow or next week.” When asked who said there would be airstrikes, he replies: “The Americans. The UN.”
Never mind that the UN Security Council has not voted to authorise force against northern Mali. It is almost undoubted among people here that there will, eventually, be war – likely with some form of Western involvement – and everyone in Timbuktu is waiting for the bombs to fall.
Mad Max world
Even before the latest conflict, northern Mali was one of the world’s toughest neighbourhoods.
Through reporting trips to the far north over the years, Al Jazeera has witnessed a quasi-lawless land of simmering Tuareg rebellions, state-run drug-smuggling mafia and militia, alongside al-Qaeda fighters, kidnappers and bandits, all hosted by one of the world’s poorest people – animal herding families, wholly dependent on a drying land.
And that was in normal times.
Now, following the total withdrawal of the state, and the MNLA’s failure to replace it with another, northern Mali has become a Mad Max world of roving armed groups, where having a gun and a gang is important for survival.
Even the children are taking up arms.
We saw scores of Tuareg child soldiers in northern Mali, especially among al-Qaeda-linked groups. Many come from communities that are extremely isolated and poor – where it is normal for a child to walk hours each day to bring water from distant wells, normal for children to lose a parent due to a lack of medical care, normal to be illiterate, and where every 10 years it is normal to lose some, half, or all of one’s animals, and to start once again from zero.
All it takes to recruit a child like this is to give his parents charity, promise to make a man of the boy and teach him the Quran – a sound proposition to many Saharan families who have received little or nothing from the Malian state.
One of the Tuareg mujahideen, a quiet soul named Ahmed Ag Mohamed Al Ansari, told Al Jazeera with utmost sincerity he joined Ansar al-Din because “now we are in a time of troubles and wars.
“I know I’m going to die anyway, so at least I want it to be for the sake of God.”
With additional reporting from Timbuktu, Gao, Wana and Es-Souk.