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Bamako, a great sprawl of 2 million people on the Niger River, was in the grip of a gun battle. Soldiers of Mali's new ruling junta, who wore the green berets of the regular army, had been in power all of five weeks when I arrived there late last April. Now they were fighting a countercoup attempt from the former presidential guard, an elite parachute regiment loyal to President Amadou Toumani Touré, the democratically elected leader who was deposed by junior army officers last March, when he had been weeks from retirement and elections to replace him. But by the time his guard -- distinguished from other army units by its members' bright red berets -- made a move, he'd exiled himself to Senegal. They fought on without him.
I spent the evening of May 1 and the early hours of May 2 at my hotel, listening to the popping of small arms and the drone of heavy machine guns. I've been to a dozen African countries over the last two and a half decades, but this was my first coup. Machine guns filled the night with sickening low staccato groans, like the devil clearing his throat. I thought of young men torn apart. Sleep was impossible.
I was planning to travel to Mali's suddenly overwhelmed north, where al Qaeda-allied jihadists and Tuareg rebels had the country's beleaguered military on the run, abandoning the famed city of Timbuktu and large swaths of territory. But first my old friend Isaac and I would have to figure out how to get out of Bamako. When I flew in to meet him right before the countercoup, he looked sad and tired. "We have never known this kind of thing in Mali," he said. "We are not the Congo."
Around 1 a.m. on May 2, I called Isaac on his cell phone to ask whether he thought our trip was still possible. He, too, was awake, though he lived on the south side of the Niger River, much farther from the fighting, near the permanent checkpoint on National Highway 6, the main north road we would have to take. His family had an apartment on the ground floor of an unfinished three-story building where he worked as caretaker in exchange for rent. That night he'd staked out the checkpoint and had confirmed the army was letting buses and cars leave the city after being searched. But he was cautious. Fighting still raged around the state television station and the airport. "The soldiers won't care about me," Isaac said, "but they'll wonder about your motives for traveling north. Right now, anything can happen."
We decided to wait.
Through those early-morning hours the grit of a Saharan dust storm, a fine light-brown talcum, shrouded the lights of Bamako. From my window I could see little, though the sound of gunfire was unmistakable. I heard two explosions like soft crunches, probably mortar rounds. At 2 a.m. I went outside to see whether I could find someone to talk to. The streets were empty. A Toyota pickup full of soldiers in green berets, men defending the new military junta, passed by slowly and quietly, their guns pointed at the sky. I nodded, and a couple of soldiers sitting in the truck bed, faces shiny with sweat, nodded back. I returned to my room and switched on the television to check the state broadcasting station for news. They were showing a French documentary about the biology of earthworms. I went to bed.
Around dawn a powerful thunderstorm woke me. Deafening thunderclaps and flashes of lightning rolled across the city as if to scold the bickering soldiers. Hours later, working at my desk, I heard a sharp bang outside my window. Then came two more loud sounds. I rose from my chair and crept along the wall to the window, where I peered out. There, just off the street about a hundred feet away, a young man using a rope to hang from a densely branched mango tree was knocking fruit loose with a metal pole. Mangoes fell -- bang, bang, bang -- on the corrugated iron roof of a shed. Humbled, I realized I needed to get hold of myself.