My Foreign Policy piece “Lost City” on NPR’s “Must Read” program.

Tina Brown’s Must-Reads: Modern Warfare


(The Link:

July 18, 2012

Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast andNewsweek, tells us what she’s been reading in a feature that Morning Edition likes to call “Word of Mouth.”

This month, Brown shares reading recommendations related to the changing nature of war, including a book on Obama’s foreign policy and an article about the ongoing destruction of Timbuktu’s ancient monuments.

A Reporter Who Wouldn’t Quit

Brown’s first pick is “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” by Marie Brenner; it’s a profile of the late war correspondent, featured in this month’s Vanity Fair.

Colvin died in February under Syrian shelling while on assignment in Homs, Syria. Brown compares her to Martha Gellhorn, the war reporter who famously covered the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

“She was a war correspondent completely of the old school,” Brown tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “She wanted to be there on the ground, in the middle of danger, writing her dispatches. She was a crazy, danger-loving girl who really couldn’t resist, in a sense, the adrenaline of the front.”

Brenner’s profile goes deep into Colvin’s character, including her difficulties with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“That was really one of the great untold stories of the time,” Brown says. “[Colvin] just could not stop going back, even when it was quite clear that she had really enough shellshock to get out of the game.”

“Colvin certainly had a strong humanitarian instinct,” Brown adds. “She wanted to tell the stories of the people that no one wanted to write about or cared about.

“But she also had several marriages, she was constantly in love with the wrong guys, she had a drinking problem, she couldn’t have kids; all of these things, I think, made her a pretty tumultuous and unhappy woman underneath. And going off to war means that you can simply put everything in a box — sweep it away — and that’s really in a sense a way of evading reality also.”

The Sankore mosque in Timbuktu dates from the 15th and 16th centuries. Islamist rebels who took over the city earlier this year have since started destroying ancient tombs and mosques like this one.

Jordi Cami/Cover/Getty Images
The Sankore mosque in Timbuktu dates from the 15th and 16th centuries. Islamist rebels who took over the city earlier this year have since started destroying ancient tombs and mosques like this one.

A Historic City Coming To Ruins

Next is “Lost City,” an article by Peter Chilson inForeign Policy magazine. Chilson documents how the Islamist rebels who recently took over the city of Timbuktu, in the West African nation of Mali, have begun systematically tearing downmany of its ancient tombs, mosques and monuments, just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. The structures, sacred to Sufi Muslims, are seen as idolatrous by the rebels.

Brown says Chilson’s piece highlights the destruction while also providing a beautiful picture of the city itself.

“At night, the desert sky was so bright and clear it seemed to rest right on the rooftops,” Chilson writes of when he first saw Timbuktu. “During the day, the city and landscape blended into the blinding pale sky, as if Timbuktu itself were floating on a cloud.”

“There’s a dreamlike quality to this landscape,” Brown says. “And [Chilson] writes also about how Timbuktu has always had a genius for being able to absorb its invaders. Century after century, since the 14th century, it has been invaded and it has had these uprisings, but it returns.”

Brown and Chilson both wonder, though, how Timbuktu will survive this time.

“[The rebels] are killing the soul of Islam,” says one of the people interviewed in Chilson’s piece. Brown adds: “They’re doing that by wiping out [Islam’s] own history — its very notion of itself.”

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Burkina Faso: A Small West African Country Struggles to Bring Peace to Mali

Burkina Faso: A Small West African Country Struggles to Bring


Col. Moussa Cisse, spokesman for Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Defense, hunched over his desk, cell phone to his ear, scribbling on a pad. It was after 6 p.m. on May 22, 2012, in Ouagadougou, the capital city, and he was just learning about an incident in the country’s north: Farmers had attacked cattle herders over land rights, a common conflict on the sun-washed lands of the West African Sahel, where good soil and grass are scarce. Except in this case an international border fell between combatants. Cattle belonging to ethnic Fulani herders from Burkina Faso had trampled crops of Dogon farmers across the border in Mali. Dozens of people were dead, mostly Fulani men, Cisse told me. Preliminary news reports spoke of hundreds of Fulani fleeing Mali and burnt bodies found in the bush… (To read on, click on title-link)

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Refugee Road: The Flight from Mali

Refugee Road: The Flight from Mali

Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

Ilagala Ag Amin, a 59-year-old Tuareg from northern Mali’s Kidal region in West Africa, is a wiry, compact man who, when I met him at the Mentao Red Cross camp in Burkina Faso, was wearing a blue cotton tunic and leggings with a black turban wrapped around his shaven head. For visitors and friends he showed off the bullet wounds across his stomach from his days fighting with Libyan forces in Chad, back in 1982, and later with Tuareg rebels in the 1991 uprising against Mali and neighboring Niger, a war that lasted five years. “Five operations,” he said, lifting his tunic and pointing at the scars. “I still have a bullet inside me.” If he could, Ilagala would join the current rebellion that has split Mali between north and the south. “My heart is strong, but my body”—he shook his head—“not so good.”  (Click on title to continue reading)


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Mali Chaos Continues/PRI’s The World

Mali Chaos Continues | PRI’s The World

On Public Radio International’s “The World” with Marco Werman, May 25, 2012:

American journalist Peter Chilson  has been in Mali, reporting on the crisis there.

He crossed the border from Mali into Burkina Faso to escape increasing violence.

The country has been in chaos since Mali’s president was deposed by a military coup in March.

The Tuareg minority has also mounted a rebellion and declared an independent state in the north of the country.

Anchor Marco Werman talks with Peter Chilson about what he saw and heard while in Mali about the continuing unrest and uncertainty there.


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An Enemy We Could Respect

The curator at the Sikasso Regional Museum here in the south of Mali tosses up his hands and falls on the floor of his office, flat on his back to demonstrate how the city of the same name, once the capital of the African kingdom of Kenedougou, fell to the French in 1898. He looks at me with his arms stretched out above his head. Then he sits up and brings his fists together. “They had this”: He mimes the rotating lever of the Gatling gun, “ta, ta, ta, ta, ta” and stops. “All we had were old guns or bows.” He mimed the pulling of a bowstring and made the swishing sound of the departing arrow. Back on his feet he brushed off his trousers. “The fight wasn’t fair and that’s why we have a monument to Samory. He was an enemy we could respect.”

Outside Sikasso, a city of 130,000, stands the point of our conversation—a lifelike statue of the warlord and Pan-African icon Samory Touré, who laid siege to Sikasso for fifteen months until August 1888. He died twelve years later, a prisoner of the French, not long after his capture, ending his campaign to push France off the continent and build a new African empire, one that if he’d succeeded—and he nearly did—might include all of what is now Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as Guinea and most if not all of Ivory Coast—a great chunk of West Africa. That likeness of Samory—mounted on a concrete platform atop the hill where he made his siege camp outside Sikasso—wears a white robe and black turban. He fingers prayer beads in one hand, clutching a Koran in the other while gazing upon the city he failed to take. The French were not a factor in the siege. They came later.

The statue is made of concrete and projects Samory in the image of a photograph taken shortly after his capture. A large portrait cropped from that photo hangs in the Sikasso museum. In the photo and on the statue, he looks thoughtful, face deeply lined, eyes a little menacing, a strange monument for a city and region that endured his scorched earth tactics. Tens of thousands died from starvation and disease or were butchered by his soldiers, themselves taken from conquered lands. He sold slaves to buy powder and weapons but did not formally pay or feed his army. Samory’s soldiers fed themselves on looting. A mile away, atop another hillock just outside Sikasso, stands the image of Samory’s general, Nankafali Camara, packing powder into a muzzle loaded rifle, his eyes wide and determined.

But Sikasso defied Samory, which, as the museum curator explains, is the point of the monument standing beyond what remains of the ancient wall that protected the city. Samory gave up the siege, assuming he could deal with Sikasso later. He moved on, taking lands to the east and south, in what is today Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, until the French gradually wore down his armies and hunted him down, earning Samory his reputation as anti-colonial crusader. Not unlike the American Indian leader Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, Samory struck his enemy and vanished, staying ahead of the French for a decade.

In 1898, months after Samory’s capture, the French took Sikasso, overwhelming the city’s archers and cavalry armed with rifles forged in the city’s iron works. The French used modern cannon and the Gatling gun, forerunner of the machine gun, a self-cooled weapon that fired multiple bullets per minute from several barrels mounted on a rotating cylinder activated by a hand lever, just as the museum curator showed me. Samory never breached Sikasso’s defensive wall of mud and rock, nine kilometers around, 12 feet high, and six feet thick. The French blew it to pieces, though sections of it remain to this day, mostly covered by thick brush. The architect of that wall, the king of Kenedougou, committed suicide (he ordered his own soldiers to execute him) rather than submit to French rule.


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Travel without Papers

I’ve just learned that Mohammed, the uninvited passenger sitting in the back seat of my rented car, doesn’t have travel papers. This is an issue because we’re waiting at the Ivory Coast border on our way south, out of Mali. Mohammed is the brother of Abdoulaye Diakité (pronounced Ja-kee-té), owner and driver of the four-cylinder Chinese made sedan we are riding in, me in front. Abdoulaye is also the man I hired to help me explore the northern borderlands of Ivory Coast in the wake of last spring’s civil war. I’ve been in Mali a month and Abdoulaye is the best driver I’ve found—fearless and honest, a French speaker with a good car. But in the preceding days, as we organized this trip, he didn’t tell me his brother would be riding with us.

I expect complexities at international borders, especially in Africa. When I applied for a visa at the Ivorian embassy in Bamako, the consul required my itinerary, typed in French and double-spaced, as well as addresses of the hotels I would stay at with confirmed reservations, four passport-sized photographs, a World Health Organization vaccination card (showing shots for yellow fever, hepatitis, rabies, measles, and meningitis), and the equivalent of $120 in cash for the visa. So I’m surprised by Mohammed’s—I’m not sure what to call it—forgetfulness?

The policeman in a black “Police Nationale” uniform, having handed back my passport, is bending down at the backseat window, directly behind me, hands on his knees, talking to Mohammed in a mix of Bambara and French, the first of which I understand poorly and the second fluently. Mohammed is a Peul herdsman and speaks Fulfulde, his first language, and Bambara, his second, but little French. I pick up enough to know the situation is worse than I thought. This is not a matter of an expired identity card or
visa, which can often be negotiated. Apparently, Mohammed carries no papers at all. This makes me tense, worried that the policeman might blame me, the man who hired the taxi, for this oversight. I put my passport in the bag at my feet and take a deep breath. Ivory Coast’s new government only weeks ago restored professional police and customs services along its northern frontier. This checkpoint is simple: a concrete block building, the orange, white and green Ivorian tricolor flying from a metal pole, two red and white striped barrels in the middle of the road, and this one policeman, a tall, bone thin middle-aged man with a kindly smile and graying hair.

He moves back to my window and nods politely. In French he asks Abdoulaye for his identity card and car registration, not a hint of suspicion in his voice. Abdoulaye reaches into the glove compartment and hands over the registration and card with 1,000 West African francs (about $2.50). The badly worn bill sticks out from the papers. Abdoulaye’s identity card, which I’ve seen, confirms he is a citizen of Mali, born in the town of Bougouni, and that he is of Peul ethnicity, a group whose livelihood is traditionally rooted in herding livestock. The card includes his parents’ names, and Abdoulaye’s profession: taxi driver. After a short conversation, with Abdoulaye and the policeman gesturing and smiling at Mohammed, the policeman hands back the documents. He nods with three fingers at his temple.

“Drive safely,” the policeman says, “and go with God.”

A few miles down the road I ask Abdoulaye in French: “So, your brother has no papers,” I hope Mohammed does not understand my question.

“No,” Abdoulaye says. “This is all the same country here. Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea.” He waves a hand left to right across the windshield. “We all understand each other here. I can vouch for my brother.” Then he says, “Il faut te calmer. You need to relax.”

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Man of the People?

Man of the People?

Late the morning of Dec. 3, I’m in a Toyota Land Cruiser in a convoy, fourteen vehicles racing through thick red dust across back roads of the “new” Ivory Coast—the freshly reunited Ivory Coast, six months after the end of last spring’s brief civil war—on the campaign trail with Mamadou Sanogo, mayor of a tiny town on the border with Mali. Sanogo is a “businessman,” a gasoline smuggler, a gold miner, a construction contractor in roads and buildings, a trucking baron, probably an arms dealer, and most definitely a war profiteer. The “chef des rebels” locals call him on both sides of the border. The mayor’s biggest client, or business partner, depending on the point of view, was the New Forces rebel movement, part of the alliance of rebel militias that have formed the new government. Now Sanogo wants to add “depute” to his resume, running for a seat in the new National Assembly on the coat tails of Alassane Ouattara, President de la Republique, the man Sanogo’s rebel friends—and indirectly the mayor himself—boosted to power in April.

And Sanogo is running fast. The campaign officially started at midnight and he has seven days to visit as as many villages as he can before voting begins. The convoy, with the candidate in a brand new gold Hummer behind the car I am in, charges down this bumpy road, about thirty miles south of the Mali border, through its own storm of red dust, rich with iron like so much West African ground. We’ve only been to one village this morning and already the campaign has lost two vehicles. The first I saw minutes ago through the haze, a small green Renault, full of young men, campaign volunteers, just after it slammed into a tree stump with its front end scrunched up at an odd angle. As we blew past, the driver was stumbling out from behind the wheel with blood all over his arms and head. I turned my head to look back, eyes wide and my mouth open, pointing. “They’re jerks,” shouted Mohammed Cisse, Sanogo’s campaign manager in the front seat, waving them off. “I told those guys to stay to the rear and not to drive so fast.” Our driver slowed but Mohammed barked at him. “No! We have work to do.” Minutes later we passed the campaign panel truck, listing to the right—a broken axel, a flat tire?—with Sanogo’s face and slogan “Union, Solidarite, Developpment” emblazoned on the sides. Mohammed shrugged and we kept going.

Now, the convoy slows as we near the village of Nian Bbarrasso. The dust thins and I see people spilling into the road. Behind them rise the sloping thatch roofs atop their mud homes. There are young men and women and children, some wearing white Sanogo T-shirts bearing his picture in a suit jacket and tie. Men bang drums and chant in Senefou, the language of the dominant ethnic group along the border. We pull off the road and the gold Hummer rolls past at a crawl as the crowd breaks around the vehicle. Sanogo stands through the sunroof. He is a big man, not muscular or tall, just big, round faced without much of a neck. He wears gold rimmed glasses and a navy blue blazer over a campaign T-shirt, jeans, and a pair of leather loafers, which I spotted earlier in the morning, country club attire for a visit to a remote African farming village. Sanogo grew up among these villages, but he looks a little uneasy, smiled pinned to his face, waving weakly with one hand. Following Mohammed, campaign posters rolled in his hand, I walk through the crowd and across the road into the village. In front of us, beneath a huge old baobab, the village “palaver tree,” a dozen middle aged and older men in long tunics and skull caps sit on mats, waiting. A smaller group of older women in colorful cotton shawls and pagnes sit on mats just behind them. In the middle of their circle is an empty stuffed chair.

Cisse looks at me, rubbing his chin. “These people

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According to Legend

The Mali Empire that ruled much of West Africa for 400 years from Niani, this village in Guinea on the Sankarani River, helped establish the first long-term trans-Saharan trade with Europe. One emperor, Abubakari II, is said to have launched pirogues fitted with sails from the coast of Senegal to explore the world beyond. Niani’s elders insist their ancestors landed in North America long before Columbus.

But Sergeant Ishmail Camara, commander of Niani’s small border garrison, isn’t buying my interest in the past. “I teach African history and literature,” I explain, on my knees and glancing up at him, trying to be cheerful while I unpack my backpack as he has ordered. Camara and his men hand my passport back and forth among them. “I came here because I want to see where the empire was born.”

I’ve been pleading the innocence of my mission for half an hour, ever since I walked two miles across the border from Mali to this checkpoint outside Niani. I spread my belongings on a plastic mat in the sand in the late afternoon shade of the tin roofed mud building that acts as a guard post. My mosquito net, a pair of field shorts, a headlamp, water bottle… The red, yellow and green Guinean tricolor hangs limp atop a high wooden pole. Camara, short and wiry like a boxer, stands with his arms folded, the only one of these men in uniform: desert combat boots, pressed and clean desert camouflage and a bush hat, with the brim folded up over his ears. Camara looks like he’s in his 30s, betrayed by lines around his eyes and gray stubble on his chin, but his men are younger, twenties or late teens. They slouch in plastic lawn chairs, wearing a mix of gym shorts, camouflage pants, Chinese made flip flops, and T-shirts that say things like “A Night In Paradise” beside a smiley face with tongue sticking out. They look more like fraternity brothers than border guards.

“You are well prepared,” Camara says, “like a real commando.”

I smile but say nothing.

No one touches my things. Instead, Camara asks me to explain every item and why I am carrying it. I unfold a pocket knife for them. Then I hold up my underwear, a Themarest pad, tins of sardines, a roll of crackers, my medical kit, which I open and go through, setting out every bandage, pill, and tube of antibacterial cream. One of the young men, frowning with concentration, points to a black item in the pile, about the size of a hand grenade. “That!” he shouts, rising from his chair. “That right there,” in a voice that suggests he has found proof of what I am really doing here. “What is that?” I hold it up, pinched between thumb and forefinger, and unwrap a balled up pair of socks. Camera smiles. The soldier looks disappointed.

But this is not a foolish process. To Camara and his men I must look strange, a white man alone, walking out of the forest with a full backpack right into a remote border post as if by accident, 30 miles from the nearest major town. In West Africa, such a distance in bush country is often a full day’s travel (or two) in a barely functioning vehicle. To complicate matters, about 60 miles to the southeast, where Guinea, Mali, and Ivory Coast meet, a civil war has just ended in Ivory Coast, involving mercenaries from Liberia, which also borders Guinea. The network of political lines is tight, complicated by tribal divisions, rumors of white mercenaries, and arms smugglers moving in the borderlands. Calmly, I do as I’m told.

After an hour, Camara hands me my passport and tells me to repack my things. “I sent a message to the village chief,” he says. “You’ll stay with him and his family. You can talk about history with the village elders in the morning.” He watches as I repack. “You’re courageous to come here like this.”

“Maybe.” I look up at him. “Or a little stupid.”

“Well,” he says. “There is that, too.”

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Remains of Empire: The Road to Niani

On November 9, in late afternoon, I’m walking through a forest between two West African countries, Mali and Guinea. I’m looking for a tiny village called Niani, on the Guinea side. Niani, once a large walled city of tens of thousands of people, is the ancient capital of the Mandingo Empire, one of Africa’s great pre-colonial powers, which, like the country that exists today, also called itself Mali.

The Malian frontier guards warned me that to find Niani I had to stay on the main trail to the east and ignore trails that break off to the west. One guard, a tall, shaven headed young man in desert khaki, pointed to a pyramid shaped hill that rose above the mango, acacia and neem forests to the southeast, in Guinea. “Niani,” he said, “sits nearly at the foot of that hill.” But now, a mile and a half from the border post in Mali, I can’t see the hilltop above the forest and I’m worried about other trails that spiral off in every direction over hardpan red laterite soil. I’m trying to stick to the most worn pathway, angling more or less to the east. The path is as wide as a backcountry logging road through dense, green leafy bush of thin brown tree trunks and high yellowed grass. Every hundred yards or so a baobab with great knobby limbs and a trunk as big around as a Volkswagen bug muscles everything else out of the way. Here, the only motorized traffic is the occasional motorcycle. I see the narrow tire tracks.

In Bamako, Mali’s capital, I worked with government cartographers to locate Niani, which everyone knows is on the Sankarani River. But I could find no map or person to agree on a precise position. So, a wad of maps in my knapsack, I took a bus 120 miles south to the district of Yanfolila, near the river, which also forms part of the border with Guinea. I asked anyone who would listen—policemen, truck drivers, village chiefs—if they could place Niani on one of my maps. This way, I got gradually closer.

Niani surfaces in history in 1235 with the rise of the Mali Empire led by Soundiata Keita, a warrior known for his horsemanship and sorcery. According to legend, Soundiata could raise armies of spirit fighters to vanquish his foes. On a battlefield not far from where I’m walking he is said to have disabled an opponent with an arrow shot from miles away. This past makes Niani at least as old if not older than the better known ancient Saharan university and trading center of Timbuktu hundreds of miles to the north. Timbuktu existed on the fringe of the empire, which stretched across West Africa from the Niger River to the Atlantic coast of what is now Senegal—an area the size of California and Oregon.

I’m prepared to camp, carrying a pack with two liters of water, nuts, crackers and tins of sardines, a half-dome mosquito net, and bedroll. My pack thermometer reads 105 degrees with the sun hovering over green forests on the western horizon. It will be dark in a couple of hours. I have been on the road since 8 this morning from Yanfolila, first on an aging bus, and walking since 10. I am tired and thirsty, though I have enough water. The hill the Malian guards pointed to comes back into view straight ahead and the path emerges from the forest onto a broad green plain planted under peanuts and corn. A half mile ahead, through clumps of mango trees and a couple of giant baobabs, I see round mud grain silos with cone shaped roofs made from bundles of corn stalks. Minutes later I come to a square mud building with a corrugated tin roof and a flag pole. In the distance, on the other side of the village, Sankarani River is a mile wide and murky blue in waning light. On plastic mats and in cheap plastic chairs sit four men in sandals wearing a patchwork of athletic shorts, T-shirts, and camouflage trousers—the Guinean border guards. I’ve arrived in Niani, Guinea.

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In Kidira, a town on Senegal’s eastern edge, the border policeman sees me studying the big trucks lined up on the road for the half mile back into town. I am standing—Senegal behind me to the west, and Mali before me to the east—in front of the metal card table where he presides on the veranda of the border checkpoint, a concrete shack with a corrugated iron roof. Waiting nearby, engine running, is a tiny Renault taxi I’ve hired to take me into Mali. Maybe he has noticed the fixed stare on my face as I turn my head this way and that. While writing my passport number in a large spiral bound register, the policeman shouts, “Do you know why there are so many trucks here?” in a voice that does not expect an answer.  “Mali has no seacoast and no seaport,” he says, fanning the pages in search of a spot to stamp Senegal’s permission for me to leave the country.

On dirt streets off the main road, harsh, boxy long-haul trucks muscle everything else aside and out of sight, dwarfing mud homes and the police and customs shacks like an invasion of giant centipedes. Motor scooters and the occasional car dart around them. The skyline is all trucks. They roll on the asphalt road and wobble and jerk across rutted streets, some listing dangerously as they try to maneuver off or back up on the asphalt. This is a world of dust, diesel, and engines so loud that nearly everyone speaks at a half shout or greater.

Finally, the policeman opens my passport on the table, fingers splayed across the pages. He wears black trousers and an immaculate khaki tunic with black epaulettes, his bare feet resting atop brown leather slippers. He looks at me, his shaven head lowered, eyes raised as if over glasses tipped on the end of his nose, though the glasses are missing.

The taxi driver took a network of side streets to get me to the border and the front of the line. From here the trucks thread west back through Kidira and out of town for two miles on both sides of the asphalt, leaving a narrow path between for everyone else. Only a few trucks are going west into Senegal from Mali, carrying onions, millet and sorghum, peanuts, and Mali’s main export, livestock. Most are going east, into Mali, full of condensed milk, water pumps, gasoline and diesel fuel, electric generators, bulldozers, cement mix, bottled water, Coke and Fanta, medical supplies, and hundreds of other items offloaded from ships at the port at Dakar and that keep landlocked Africa going. This includes, according to customs and police, weapons for the Muslim fundamentalists of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the separatist Tuareg rebels fighting both Mali and Niger for their own piece of desert. More likely arms and drugs move through the bush, which is unmarked and mostly unpatrolled between major roads. This is a border like most in French West Africa:  The precise path no one has verified, not even the French colonizers who drew the line.

The policeman says, “Le Mali, c’est un pays enclave—Mali is a closed-in country.” He raises his hands and his eyebrows as he touches his thumbs and index fingers to make an oval, sealed off. “Do you see?”

I wonder if he has a special need to be sure I don’t fly away from Africa without knowing one of its many injustices—that a country could be locked inside a continent.

“Right,” I say, careful about expressing too much to the man holding my passport. “Not good.”

He smiles and hands back my passport. “No, it’s not good. Bonne Route, monsieur.”

Kidira Trucks


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