OUAHIGOUYA, Burkina Faso – In Koro, eastern Mali, nerves are raw in this town of 14,000 souls that live on a broad, arid plain near the border with Burkina Faso. A rumor rippled out from Koro's marketplace early on a hot May afternoon, that rebel fighters from the north -- Islamists or Tuareg nationalists, no one knew for sure -- would attack the next day, Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. By Thursday night, when I went to interview Koro's mayor, Soumaila Djinde, at his home, the rumor had become more specific: He told me that two local merchants had come to his office around 6 p.m., worried because they had heard that fighters from the Islamic Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine -- which participated in the fall of Timbuktu on April 1 in the rebellion that has split Mali in two -- would visit Koro to show their strength and pray at the town's large mosque. The mosque -- a beautiful building of iron-rich, red-brown mud with high, pointed towers along each wall and thick ornate wooden doorways cut from giant baobab trees -- was built hundreds of years ago by Dogon tribesmen from whom Djinde is descended.
Koro had been raided once already, on April 6. No one was hurt, but the incident rattled nerves and people worry about new attacks. "I hear these rumors all the time," Djinde told me, speaking in French. "Just the same, you should not show yourself in town." Good advice, given that I am tall, with white hair and white skin that makes me a good kidnapping target for the likes of Ansar Dine or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, both of which roam the north with impunity. I left Koro the next morning, Friday, and crossed into Burkina Faso. When I called Djinde later that day, he said the raid never came. But that was no comfort to him or the village of Koro. "We live in confusion here," he said.
People in villages and towns like Koro, across the high cliffs and volcanic bedrock of the ethnic Dogon country, now find themselves on the edge of Mali's new and toxic northern frontier, face to face with a rogue Tuareg state, the so-called Azawad, and largely without a government to protect them. Add to the mix Islamist groups like Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda, whose motives are different from the Tuareg nationalists, and the confusion is complete. For the Islamists, this is a religious war for the supremacy of Muslim sharia law. For the nationalists -- who have banded together under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known by its French acronym, MNLA -- this is a war for national and ethnic independence. The rebels don't have the resources to invade and occupy Mali's more densely populated and verdant south, but they need basic supplies to hold the north and the raids serve that purpose. Towns like Koro are probably not at risk of being taken outright, though they have things the rebels need: food, cars, tires, and spare parts. Koro has not been raided since I left, but there are frequent reports of banditry in villages on both sides of the Mali-Burkina Faso border north of Koro.
Tuaregs are well known for their raiding culture, a reputation that is many hundreds of years old. The history of the Sahara is full of stories of dark, turbaned men on camelback appearing suddenly atop a sandy ridge or out of the dust to attack a trans-Saharan trading caravan, a village, or a European exploring party. The ill-fated Flatters expedition of 1880, which the French commissioned to survey a trans-Saharan railroad, was picked apart by ambush and treachery, reducing a force of 97 men to a dozen stragglers. For all this the Tuaregs have earned the grudging respect and eternal suspicion of the darker skinned peoples of the Sahel. The French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio captures the Tuareg mystique in the opening of his novel, Desert: "They appeared as if in a dream at the top of the dune, half hidden in the cloud of sand rising in their steps..."
But in Koro people feel no such mystique, only fear. Koro is latitudinally in central Mali, in the east of Mopti province, where staples like millet and rice sell for six times what they did a year ago, due to war and little rain last year. Mali, along with the rest of the West African Sahel, from Senegal to Chad, is under the strain of a drought that has put 15 million people at risk of starvation. Now, this conflict has plunged the region into deeper trouble, producing some 320,000 refugees. A third of them are displaced within Mali, while the rest have fled across borders into Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger. Among the Dogon people, in village after village across Mopti province, farmers talk of a season of starvation Mali has not experienced in recent memory.
"We don't have the resources to feed ourselves right now," Moumouni Damango, the Malian government's emergency relief coordinator in Mopti city, told me. "And now this war? We don't have time for this." In Songho, a village in the Dogon cliff country about 20 miles east of Mopti city, an elder named Malick Yanogue said through an interpreter that last year's yields of millet, peanuts, sorghum, and corn were nearly zero. The European and American tourists who once liked to explore the famous cliff dwellings and buy Dogon cloth and wood carvings stopped coming a year ago because of the looming threat of war. "Many people in Songho are eating one meal a day," Yanogue said. "There is not much food to sell, and not many people have the means to buy food." He and farmers in other villages complained that food availability is even worse because many village markets are empty for fear of rebel raids.
On April 6, the same day as the raid on Koro, the MNLA declared the independence of Azawad, just a week after they and their Islamist allies overran the north of Mali, taking the towns of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu one right after the other. They forced the Malian Army back south to the city of Mopti, the provincial capital where the Bani River meets the mighty Niger, 170 miles south of Timbuktu. When Timbuktu fell, gendarmes, bureaucrats, and aid agencies fled many towns and villages in Mopti province, including Koro. Army desertions have also been high, though figures are hard to come by.
Djinde explained to me why there's now such fear. Around 8 a.m. that April morning, six rebel fighters entered Koro in a Toyota Land Cruiser pickup with a partially deflated tire, according to Djinde, who witnessed their arrival. They broke into the empty gendarmerie across from Djinde's office, looking for weapons but found none. Then, Djinde said, they drove to the market where they grabbed a young man off the street who showed them to the offices of the aid agency World Vision. The staff had fled, leaving an elderly watchman at the compound gates. At gunpoint, he opened the gates and offices for the rebel fighters. They took the keys to a Toyota Land Cruiser SUV parked in the compound, as well as a pile of spare tires.