Welcome to Azawad, the World’s Newest Failed State
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