It’s not easy for journalists to reach Azawad. For one it’s far from safe. And it’s extremely physically challenging.
But once you drive for over 1,500km the desert begins to reward you generously. The freshness of the air is phenomenal. Your adrenaline rises as you approach the rebel camps. And you begin to understand what real God-given freedom means. Nothing blocks your sight wherever you turn.
You’re at the centre of the universe with the blue dome of the sky your only roof, the super-flat, super-round earth your carpet underneath. You’re at the heart of what was once called “the uncontrolled territories”.
Throughout known history no central state has ever really ruled here. Moroccan monarchs only tried shaky and short- lived alliances with the tribes. Most Malian kings were capable of managing trade relations for a little while, exchanging black slaves with salt and dates.
France was the first foreign power to impose a semblance of order here thanks to the sheer supremacy of its war technology. But historically it was such a brief moment.
France soon left behind a mess called Mali. It annexed Azawad to the central government in Bamako. The result: over 60 years of warfare and several mutual massacres.
Reviewing all those facts in my mind, I finally arrive with my team to the nearest camp a camp that’s no camp.
Toting their machine guns and riding their robust Toyota pickups, the rebels oozed out from behind little dunes and trees. Suddenly they converged around the spot where we stood.
Early 2012 the Azawad rebels, both Tuareg and Arab, were able for the first time since the creation of modern Mali in 1960 to completely expel the Malian army from the north. They declared an independent state of Azawad, with no support or recognition from any outside power.
But soon al-Qaeda-linked groups pushed the nationalist rebels aside and took control of the main cities. The al- Qaeda presence hastened foreign intervention and less than a year later France led a military campaign to help the Malian army retake the north.
In the process the cause of the Azawad rebels took a harsh blow. Sometimes they were lumped with al-Qaeda and its affiliated, which extremely hurt their legitimacy. And often they were accused of being no more than a bunch of criminals and drug traffickers.
With this dark background on their minds they met us. First they seemed to mostly show their might and send a message to the Malian government that they were not crushed and that they are still able to put up a fight. But above all they wanted to address the world with a reminder of why they decided to resist against the central rule in Bamako.
‘Reverse historical wrong’
“We’ve taken up arms only to reverse a historical wrong that’s been inflicted upon us by colonialism,” cried Mouloud, an Azawad Arab rebel commander addressing a crowd of militiamen upon our arrival to their camp. But when it comes to their deep-felt aspirations the rebels are confused and a bit equivocal.
Their top commanders and political leaders negotiating with Mali in Burkina Faso are no longer talking, publically at least, about independence for Azawad but the militia men on the ground, those who do the real job of armed rebellion still cling to the dream of a completely independent state for the Tuareg and Arabs of the north.
In an attempt to explain to me why they need to take control of their own destiny, a middle-aged field commander, Al Amrani, points his finger to show me the well nearby and how the Azawad people still use camels to draw water from 100 meters below the ground.
“These are our people after 63 years of annexation to Bamako, see how they still live… And we have no schools, no medical centres, mostly no homes… We knew Mali only through onerous taxation on our livestock over the years”.
“And now”, Al Amrani goes on, “Mali has started an ethnic cleansing operation in the north. Already two thirds of our people are refugees in neighbouring countries. And those who stayed behind, mostly animal herders, are being arrested and killed with cold blood on a daily basis, on the basis of their skin colour as the only proof against them. They are wrongly accused and treated as rebels and criminals.”
Then Al Amrani falls silent for a long minute, his eyes almost swelling.
“Our cause is forgotten,” he resumes in a quieter tone. “We are abandoned by every single nation in the world. We are discarded as bandits or terrorists. But in fact we are simply a wronged people. Just because world powers have no political or economic stakes here, they don’t care about the wrongs being inflicted on us.”
It’s my fifth trip to Azawad, but this was the first time I touched this deep feeling of frustration and this bitter sense of betrayal among the Azawad rebels.