Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ethnic Tuaregs left Mali to fight for Muammar Qaddafi. Now, some are returning home to tell their story
Tuareg mercenaries, like the above pictured Niger-based fighters, have been reported fighting for Qaddafi in Libya / Reuters
TIMBUKTU, Mali -- Last month at a guesthouse within sight of the rolling dunes of the open Sahara, I sat down to await one of Muammar Qaddafi's mercenaries. Through an intermediary he agreed to meet and explain why the Tuareg -- an ancient Saharan people who inhabit large desert swathes of Libya, Mali, Niger, and Algeria -- would help the Libyan leader crush the democracy protests -- including unarmed civilians, women, and children -- and eventually join in all-out war against the ensuing rebellion
I learned about him when a Tuareg elder told me that in recent weeks more than 200 Tuareg fighters had returned from Libya to Timbuktu and the surrounding villages. He said that hundreds more had returned to other towns in eastern Mali. Local leaders were worried, he said, that these men could be the leading edge of a large wave of mercenaries returning from the fighting in Libya and that they could set a match to northern Mali's own brittle mixture of ethnic rivalries.
For decades Qaddafi has recruited the Tuareg -- long renowned for their desert-fighting prowess -- to serve in his military. In the early 1980s, the Libyan leader called them to join his Islamic Legion, which he styled as the military cornerstone for his dream of building a united Muslim state in North Africa. But after ill-fated military adventures in Lebanon, Chad, and Sudan, he disbanded the legion and invited the Tuareg to join special brigades within the Libyan army. In recent decades, various Tuareg rebel groups, many of them trained in these Libyan units, have fought in neighboring Mali and Niger. After each of these conflicts was settled, Qaddafi provided aid and shelter to the rebel leaders and many of their former combatants.
Given this history, it wasn't surprising in March when reports surfaced that Qaddafi was offering upwards of one thousand U.S. dollars a day for Tuareg to help his regime put down the festering rebellion. Officials from Mali and Niger reported convoys of vehicles bearing hundreds of Tuareg men streaming northeast toward Libya.
Now, five months later, as these men returned from the frontlines of the Libyan civil war, most were reluctant to discuss their experiences, especially with a Westerner. Some of them lectured me on the fallacy of American foreign policy in North Africa. "Hasn't Obama seen what happened to Iraq when Saddam was gone?" one asked. "Does America want another Afghanistan?" inveighed another. "Why is the United States interfering in the internal affairs of Libya?" railed a third, who, as a Malian who fought in Libya, failed to see any irony in his question.
Finally, the mercenary arrived for our meeting. His long, lean build resembled that of a hardscrabble farmer more than a warrior. He wore a frayed, brown bagzan (the long, loose shirt favored by locals), battered camel-leather sandals, and a black turban covering his nose and mouth, in the traditional Tuareg style. He suggested we go up to the roof of the guesthouse to drink hot sweet tea and take advantage of the breeze blowing in from the desert.
The man -- I will call him Abdullah -- agreed to tell his story in detail if I promised not to identify him or his family. "I am not afraid to tell the truth," he said, but he worried Mali officials or his fellow fighters might not approve.
He is a knot of inscrutable contradictions -- a Tuareg who has been on both sides of rebellion. As a boy, he said he had fled Timbuktu in the early 1990s with his family when the army attacked the city, which some in the Mali government at the time claimed was teeming with rebels and their sympathizers. He saw homes demolished by tank shells, knew political leaders who were shot, and women and children who were killed. Yet, as an adult, he chose to fight for Muammar Qaddafi against the Libyan rebels, albeit mostly for money.
To prove he had been in Libya he produced a document -- with a passport photo attached and a stamp from the Malian consulate in Tamanrasset -- identifying him as a refugee from Libya. He said that that he went to Libya in 2007 with his wife and children. They were given short-term residence papers in exchange for his enlistment in the Libyan army. He was assigned to a Tuareg brigade in the southern town of Awbari.
Two years ago, he was granted full residency status. In addition to the 1,500 dinars (about $1,300) he was paid per month -- much of which he sent back to family living in small encampments near Timbuktu -- his wife and children received free medical care, and his children went to a Libyan school. "A very good school," he said. He was promised a house and a car if he stayed in the army. "They always promised a house and a car, but very few Tuareg ever got them," he said. "I think Qaddafi tried very hard to keep the Tuareg in Libya. I think he smelled something was coming."
When the protests began in Tripoli, his unit was attached to the infamous 32nd brigade, led by Qaddafi's son Khamis, and was sent to disperse the unarmed marchers. "That was easy," he said with startling nonchalance. "We would kill three or four in the front of the crowd and they all ran away. It was very easy."
After Tripoli, he and his fellow Tuareg mercenaries fought in several battles east of the capital city along the coast, including at Misrata. As the fighting intensified, Libyan officials began rounding up Tuareg living in Libya, threatening to imprison them and their families if they didn't join the fight, though many had no military training. Some deserted and joined the rebels, but most stayed with the forces loyal to Qaddafi. At Misrata, he said he saw Ibrahim Bahanga, one of the Tuareg who led the rebellion against the Mali government from 2007 through 2009. "He was with many former rebels from Mali. They were fighting hard for Qaddafi."
Abdullah's unit moved on to Brega and then to the outskirts of Benghazi. "We were six kilometers [about four miles] from Benghazi when the first NATO bombs hit us." First, a missile hit a vehicle carrying an artillery piece near his position and killed eight men. "We never heard it or saw it. The men just blew up." He and his fellow soldiers were spooked. They were well trained to fight on the ground, he said. "None of us was good at shooting down airplanes." Men tried to hide under cars and under tree branches. When night fell, they drove without lights. When they stopped to sleep, they dug foxholes far from their vehicles.
At first, the word came down that Qaddafi had ordered his forces not to shoot at the planes. "He said he would show the world that he wanted a peaceful solution. It was a strategy to make people ask their leaders 'why are you fighting Qaddafi? He isn't fighting you.' But it didn't work and then it was too late for us to fight back."
I asked about Qaddafi's February speech, in which he pledged to hunt down protesters house by house and what his men were ordered to do if they encountered civilians. He paused before answering, "To be honest, it is true. We believed what Qaddafi told us. We believed we would go there and kill everyone."
I asked if he had seen any civilians killed. In Misrata, he says, "We tried to find everyone there. One half of the city was cleaned."
"What do you mean 'cleaned?'" I asked.
"The people were killed. Women, children, everyone there."
Who did the killing?
"Mostly it was Arabs but also some Tuareg."
Did you kill any civilians?
"No." He refused to elaborate.
I asked about accusations that Qaddafi's forces had raped women. "I never saw that," he said. But his unit found a group of women who claimed to have been raped by men from Sudan and Egypt who had been fighting with rebels.
A few weeks after the NATO bombing campaign began, Abdullah and four of his fellow Tuareg agreed to desert. "We decided that Qaddafi was a little bit crazy and didn't know what he was doing." They told the Tuareg officer in charge of their platoon they needed a rest, and he convinced the Arab commanding officer to approve a pass for the men to visit their families. "He knew we weren't coming back," Abdullah said of the Tuareg officer.
They took a bus to the south. Some of the men disassembled their Kalashnikovs and took them with them. Once in the southern Libyan town of Awbari, Abdullah burned his uniform and all his identity papers and, with his wife and four children, slipped out of the city to join other Tuareg refugees heading for the Algerian border. Able to bring only their clothes and a few household items, they left everything else.
I asked if he regretted his decision to go to Libya. He hesitated before answering. "The Tuareg say, 'It is easy to climb into a well and very hard to get out.'"
I checked his story with other Tuareg in Timbuktu, who corroborated parts of it based on what they had heard from other fighters, but many details are unverifiable. An official -- not a Tuareg -- in the mayor's office confirmed that some men have arrived from fighting in Libya, though he doesn't know how many. "I don't count them," he said. "No one wants to talk about that."
A few days later, in Mali's capital Bamako, I met a Tuareg officer in the Mali army. He was rawboned with thick, leathery hands and heavy lines creasing his forehead and around his eyes. Years of desert fighting have made him look much older than his 42 years. As a young man, he said, he was lured to Libya in the 1980s by radio broadcasts of Qaddafi calling young Tuareg to join his revolution. "I admired the way he wasn't afraid to stand up to the West, to anybody," he said.
But after being sent to the Libya-Chad war and seeing how Libya's Arabs used the Tuareg to do all the "difficult fighting," he lost his ardor for Qaddafi. He left Libya and joined the Tuareg rebels who were fighting the Mali government in the early 1990s.
I asked about the implications of mercenaries such as Abdullah coming back home to find few economic opportunities. "It is not good," he said, listing the security threats Mali faces, including a resilient, well-financed branch of al-Qaeda, which in recent years has kidnapped dozens of foreigners, effectively wrecking the country's tourism industry, and a fragile peace in the restive Tuareg region. "It is like dragging a dead tree on top of two small fires," he said. "Soon we may have one big fire."
"If Qaddafi goes, it's going to be very bad for Mali." He estimated that roughly 10,000 Tuareg remained in the Libyan army, most of them from Mali. "If Qaddafi is killed or loses power, they will all have to leave. The Arabs won't let them stay," he said. "I know many guys there. When they come here, they will fight. I have no doubt. I know them. The revolution is not over."
Before I left Timbuktu, I encountered a group of boys huddled over their cell phones. Clad in knockoff European soccer jerseys, they periodically whooped with laughter as they passed around a song using Bluetooth.
I asked what it was, and the skinniest boy, draped in an oversize Barcelona jersey, played it for me: A man shouted defiantly in Arabic followed by automatic gunfire, a house beat, and rap lyrics. "It is Qaddafi," said the boy. "He is calling the people to fight." "Zenga-zenga," added the tallest boy in a striped Inter Milan shirt. They played it again and laughed. "What does zenga-zenga mean?" I asked. "Corner by corner," said Barcelona, "he is telling people he will fight village by village, house by house, room by room, corner by corner -- zenga-zenga."
Do you like Qaddafi? I asked them. They all nod. "He is a warrior, like the Tuareg," said Barcelona. The others click their tongues in agreement. They disappeared into the darkening alleyways, heading in separate directions. I could hear them each playing the tune, spreading it through the city.
Reuters reported on Saturday that Ibrahim ag Bahanga, the Mali rebel leader turned mercenary, was killed near the Mali-Niger border. Though the circumstances remain unclear, one Mali military official indicated that fellow Tuareg shot him after they had smuggled weapons into the country from Libya. Meanwhile, on Sunday Agence France Press reported large numbers of Tuareg fighters returning to northern Niger with luxury cars and furniture.
This story was reported with support from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and as part of a report for National Geographic on the Tuareg.