In Zegoua, a town in southeastern Mali, I stand on the patio of my hotel where the border — between Mali, a country at peace, and Cote d’Ivoire, divided by war — bumps the concrete. I am the lone guest in this two-story, white-washed building with a top floor that resembles the bridge on a steamboat. The flags of Burkina Faso, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, and France hang above the hotel entrance, stuck in the heat.
A Malian named Hamidou Sakara, who runs the hotel, and I are listening to a call-in trivia show on Radio Bamako, broadcast from the capital city. The program’s topic is African geography. The host tosses out a question. “What physical feature marks Mali’s border with Senegal?”
“It’s the Faleme River,” Hamidou says.
A man calls with the same answer.
“Well,” says the host, “the River Faleme forms nearly the entire border with Senegal, but a section wanders east of the river. That leaves part of the river and a small piece of land in Senegal.” He laughs. “A bit of Mali is in Senegal.”
Hamidou slaps the table. “Yes, Mali is in Senegal.”
The mystery dates to 1895 and may be linked to a French officer who wanted a hunting ground in his district along the river. The story goes that he altered the border with French Sudan, as colonial Mali was called. I’d heard this before and checked it with the director of the National Archives. “It’s a story we know but cannot prove,” the director told me.
I explain this to Hamidou. He throws up his hands. “Who cares? You carved us up like cake.”
A few days before, Hamidou and I had stood on the patio, looking south over fields along the dry bed of the Danboro River, the seasonal drainage that marks the border. It was afternoon. I’d been waiting since 10 a.m. for an interview with Ousmane Coulibaly, a commander of rebel forces controlling the north of Cote d’Ivoire, torn in two by civil war. His job was to oversee Cote d’Ivoire’s northeastern border with Mali. But he hadn’t shown for our appointment.
“I can’t wait, Hamidou. I’m going to Nielle in the morning.”
He ran into the field. Facing me, he shouted in English, his “favorite” language: “Welcome in Ivory Coast!”
I wasn’t sure what country Hamidou was standing in: Mali — a country without coastline, trapped in the Sahel between desert and forest — or Cote d’Ivoire. The patio aligned with a guardhouse on the road a few hundred yards west. The building looked empty, the Malian guards gone to shade. All around us villagers worked their fields.
This town — 15 miles from the tri-point where Mali, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivoire meet — is Mali’s gate to the Atlantic and the seaport at Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire’s economic capital. Mali begins or ends here with concrete pillboxes painted pink against fierce heat. For days I’d been asking around about the border and the rebels. I interviewed Zegoua’s mayor, merchants, truck drivers, customs officials, and police. I hired a car for trips along the border, often not knowing which country I was in, and met villagers who didn’t care about nationality.
And why should they? In 1904, France organized 1.8 million square miles of coastal forest, inland savanna, desert, and millions of people from countless tribes into the eight colonies of French West Africa. Then they re-cut the region dozens of times, dividing land by stability and wealth and suitability for cotton, coffee, and cocoa. They never planned for independence. Where the borders lie now is mostly guesswork. On the Michelin map of West Africa, the Mali and Cote d’Ivoire border runs a jagged 350 miles from Burkina Faso to Guinea. Mali’s national tourist map, made by the Institut Nationale Geographique in Paris, shows the same. But both maps use disclaimers. “The positioning of frontiers,” notes Michelin, “in no way implies official recognition or acceptance,” while the tourist map reminds us the borders are not “legally verified.”
In Zegoua, Hamidou introduced me to Ousmane Coulibaly’s lieutenant, an ex-Malian army officer who lives here with his family. Mornings he dons combat fatigues and drives his blue Renault compact with broken headlight over the border to Nielle. He wouldn’t answer questions but promised an interview with his boss. “Wait at your hotel,” he said. Some mornings I’d stand on the road and wave down his Renault for news. He’d wave back.
I looked at Hamidou standing in the sand. “Come with me,” I said. “I need an interpreter.”
He shook his head. “I must stay here.”
“But I’m your only guest.”
Hamidou was 22, tall and lithe. He raised his hands, fingers splayed against the “wall” in mime.
“The border is here,” he said. “You just cross it.”
At dawn, I pay a boy 50 cents to take me by motor scooter across two miles of spongy vagueness between nations. We leave Mali unchallenged, but at the first Ivorian checkpoint, red-eyed, unarmed teenagers in tattered uniforms wave us down. I hand out packs of Winston cigarettes and ride on with a passport no one cares to see, stamped with the visa of a government these boys despise. Minutes later I’m left in a village at a yellowing concrete building with the national tricolor painted above the entrance beside the words:
Inside, men and boys — soldiers of a sleeping rebellion — sit on desks and windowsills. Some play cards on the floor. They wear camouflage looted from Nielle, a town 20 miles south, where I hope to interview their commander, Ousmane Coulibaly. A boy, about 16, leans against a wall, eyes closed, cradling a boom box that plays Bob Marley…Old pirates, yes, they rob I/Sold I to the merchant ships… I look around, hands in my pockets. In French I ask, “May I speak to someone in charge?”
It was May 2006. Without guaranteed safe passage, I wanted to avoid this crossing into the stateless territory of northern Cote d’Ivoire. But nine days in Zegoua negotiating to interview Ousmane — calls to rebel officers, messages passed through Malian officials, and broken meetings — have left me here, on my way to see him sans rendezvous.
A soldier knocks on a door to an adjacent room. He pulls it open and tells me to speak to his sergeant.
Inside, a shaven-headed man in desert camouflage hunches over a desk across from two men in green fatigues and caps, sitting in wooden chairs. Gray stubble covers their faces. A bookcase stands behind the sergeant, empty except for a plastic bucket. Above that hangs a framed image of a white dove.
I greet these officers of the rebel New Forces. They’ve cast their fortunes against the government in Cote d’Ivoire and its policy of denying northerners a stake as citizens and in the southern coffee and cocoa farms that made Cote d’Ivoire rich. But coffee and cocoa prices collapsed, and a failed coup in 2002 and civil war split the country between the south, loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo, and the rebel-held north, with close ethnic ties to Mali and Burkina Faso. Fighting has lulled under various peace accords and Cote d’Ivoire remains divided.
The sergeant, broad-shouldered with a broken nose, offers me a seat. He leans back in a faux leather office chair, fingering a maroon beret as he speaks to the two men in French. “I paid them each 500 francs (about a dollar) yesterday,” referring, I think, to the soldiers outside.
One replies, “There will be trouble.”
Now they look at me. “I’m a journalist,” I say, and explain my interest in this border across tribal lands. I tell them I know Ousmane Coulibaly by reputation: Commander of this border zone and former non-commissioned officer in the Ivorian Army. He is Bambara, majority ethnic group in Mali and northern Cote d’Ivoire, where he was born. His men call him “Bin Laden” because he’s Muslim and wears a long beard. But Malian officials say Ousmane is “a reasonable man.”
The sergeant looks tired, the skin around his eyes puffy. “We are not tribalists,” he says. “We are Ivorian, 100 percent.”
I nod. “I’d like to interview the commandant in Nielle.”
He purses his lips. “I cannot guarantee your safety. The government employs South African mercenaries against us. You might be misunderstood.”
“You think I’m a mercenary?”
He sighs. “You should not go, but I cannot stop you.”
Through the window I see a blue Mercedes bus arrive. I thank the sergeant and hurry outside. The driver says he’s headed to Nielle and I buy a seat on a hunch that the sergeant is lying and Ousmane is in Nielle.
Inside are mostly women in colorful head cloths and wraparound skirts called pagnes, laughing, chewing sugarcane. Burlap sacks beneath their seats burst with onions and carrots for market. I sit on the aisle beside an old man in a brown tunic and skullcap. He tells me he’s going to Nielle and then Abidjan.
“I will collect my pension. I drove a bus in Abidjan for 30 years.”
“But there’s a war. You’re not frightened to travel?”
The brakes hiss. We begin moving. “This is my country,” he says. He shows me his identity card, revealing his nationality (Malian), ethnicity (Fulani), and profession (bus driver).
We race past people on foot, bicycles, scooters, and donkeys. I’m certain we’ll arrive soon and I’ll talk my way to Ousmane’s headquarters. After a mile the bus slows. Barrels and logs block our path. Uniformed men loiter at the roadside.
The old man shakes his head. “Les enfants,” he says.
Three men board the bus, unarmed. The women carry no papers and the men scold them gently, accepting mangoes instead.
I show a soldier my passport.
“American!” He smiles. “Can you offer something so we can eat?”
I hand over two 100-franc coins.
The old man offers coins, but the soldier shakes his head. “Non, mon vieux. Keep your money.”
I nudge my new friend. “Guess we’re not through the border yet.”
“We aren’t in Cote d’Ivoire,” he says, meaning we’re in New Forces territory. He adds, “This is Africa.”
Five rebel checkpoints mark the 18 miles from the border to Nielle. At the fourth, three hours into the trip, the women on the bus are annoyed. A soldier in canvas boots, red beret, and mirrored sunglasses walks the aisle with an exaggerated frown, snapping his fingers and plucking money and identity cards from raised hands. He is tall and strong, holding cards in one hand, dropping money in a leather pouch on a cord around his neck with the other.
After I give him coins, he snaps his fingers at a woman across the aisle from me. She raises her hand to his face and snaps her fingers. The other women laugh.
The soldier persists in French. Maybe he believes French makes him sound official, or maybe he’s not Bambara. He barks, “Your identity card.”
He shouts, “Get off the bus!”
She rests her head on the seatback. A crescendo of voices rises from her friends. “Ooooooooo OOOooooooo OOOOooooo.” The woman smiles at him.
The old man bows his head. He whispers, “The women call him ‘little boy.’”
The soldier spits on the floor.
She rolls her head back and forth. He raises his hand as if to strike but she grins, pulling up the edges of her wrap and spreading her thighs. Her friends laugh and cluck their tongues as if to remind the soldier they’re watching. She lies down on the seat, spreading her thighs again with her feet up against the windows, head hanging in the aisle, against my knee. The soldier snorts and walks off the bus, leaving the blow hanging in the air. The women clap and cheer as their friend sits up and straightens her clothing. She catches me staring at her and smirks. The women make more noise and whoop it up, “Le blanc, le blanc.”
Children clear the roadblock and we roll on.
At the checkpoint outside Nielle, a soldier in green camouflage and a black policeman’s beret offers a ride on his motorcycle, provided I buy him extra petrol. Ousmane keeps his office at the old gendarmerie and when we arrive, dozens of soldiers stand about. A couple of toughs demand my purpose, but my driver fends them off.
“He is an American journalist,” he says. “He wants to see the commandant.”
“He left this morning,” says one man. “He is in Zegoua.”
“No, he is in Bouake,” says another.
“May I see his lieutenant?” I ask. “I know him.”
“He travels with the commandant.”
“When will they return?”
More guesses. I take notes. They complain of empty peace agreements and corrupt leaders.
“We have no work.”
“Cote d’Ivoire is shit now.”
My escort and I settle on a new fee and ride back to Zegoua, breezing through the roadblocks. At the border, he greets the Malian guards by name, exchanging hugs and kisses on the cheek and news of family and friends.
“We are cousins,” he explains.
“Welcome back,” a guard says. He stamps my passport and signs the page.
Hamidou jumps up. “Ousmane is here!”
The lieutenant — his name is Dialla — steps out from behind the wheel. Another man, balding and heavier with a black beard, shuts the passenger door. His purple cotton tunic falls to his knees over leggings and leather sandals.
Ousmane shakes my hand while Dialla smiles, dressed in gray trousers and a collarless shirt, with yellow and green flower patterns.
Ousmane says, “Dialla thinks it’s a good idea if I talk to you.”
“You’re an important man.”
We sit at a table in the restaurant, I across from Dialla and Ousmane, who offers an apology. “I am sorry if anyone troubled you at our checkpoints.”
“No trouble at all.”
“You have 30 minutes.”
Hamidou brings Cokes and sits. He listens, eyes on Ousmane as if memorizing his face. The commandant pinches the skin under his chin through his beard. He talks for a while about his 20 years as a soldier stuck in rank because he is an ethnic northerner. He massages a wrist with his thumb.
“Our struggle is for identity,” he says, “as northerners and Ivoriens. I was born in Korogho (a city in northern Cote d’Ivoire), but because I am Bambara the government says I am Malian. That is the tragedy of Cote d’Ivoire.”
“So, why don’t the New Forces take the north of Cote d’Ivoire and join Mali and Burkina Faso?” I ask.
Ousmane frowns. “My homeland is Cote d’Ivoire. Eventually, the borders will dissolve, but for now…” He shrugs. Dialla crosses his arms.
“So, you fight?”
He tugs at his beard. “I want no more fighting.” He looks to Dialla, who nods.
Ousmane says, “We must go.”
“What about you, Dialla?” I ask. “What nationality do you choose?”
“My friend,” Dialla says, his smile gone, “I am not important.” • 30 November 2007