My friend returned from the toilet, “I puked on a prostitute. Can we get outta here.””What?” I set down my morning beer.“There was a lady using the toilet and I threw up some of the beer when I opened the door. She’s not happy. C’mon, lets go to the market.”A cruel laugh escaped my chest, “sit down. Did your vomit hit her or just land next to her?”We could have been productive. On Facebook, I saw other Peace Corps Volunteers painting murals at schools. Another group of volunteers in a western region had made a zombie movie. They seemed to be enjoying consolidation, or at least making the best of it. I couldn’t be bothered though. Most days, anxiety drove me to the bar next door, a place to anticipate my life’s most abrupt transition. I waited for important people to announce my future.“What are they doing?” The bar was closing. Employees shut the gates and cleared away the beers. Everyone was suddenly busy, moving around. Our bartender saw our confusion.“They say the rebels are coming. We must close everything.” He didn’t seem scared, but he was serious.“The rebels are coming here? They’re coming now?”
“They are trying to overtake Mopti and Sevare tonight.”
“That can’t be right. The rebels can’t move that fast.” We questioned our bartender, but he only shrugged and got back to work.
I played with a bottle cap, trying to roll it around our empty beers. The rebels hadn’t made it across the Niger River yet and hardly had access to paved roads. They wouldn’t be making it to Sevare. The fighting was still far north of us, we reassured ourselves. However, the rumor was a fierce reminder that we were living in the suburbs of a civil war. The evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers was imminent. I almost ordered another beer, but figured this would be an appropriate situation to practice restraint.
“Do you have change for 10,000 CFA?” We paid our tab.
“You should go home. It is dangerous to be out today,” the bartender showed us out unlocking the main gate.
We ignored the warning and walked to the market to shop for lunch. Terror had crept into the city. Every business we walked passed was shutting down. Metal doors and padlocks fortified valuables. The gas station was clogged with vehicles taking turns escaping to southern regions. Whispers of the rebellion webbed the city. We called our Peace Corps manager to inform him on the situation. He was aware of the activity, but determined that the population was spooked by harmless rumors. Peace Corps volunteers were to remain consolidated in Sevare.
The market was functioning at half capacity. Clusters of stalls remained opened selling their fruits or vegetables, but large blocks of the market were abandoned. Still, plenty of locals went about their day as usual. Perhaps they hadn’t heard the news. Or maybe the had laughed off the rumors. Or maybe it made no difference. Peace or war, families need groceries.
A jeep halted in front of us. The driver was German. We greeted the man, curious to to see another westerner. He was surprised to see us too.
“What are you guys doing? Why haven’t you left?”
“We’re Peace Corps Volunteers. We’re staying in town to see what happens. If the situation gets worse we’ll probably evacuate. But if things can get under control we’ll return to our villages.”
“Any kind of control has been lost. It’s chaos now. The French NGOs all left the country this week. The Canadians left last week. I thought I was the only foreigner left in town.”
“Are you staying?”
“Absolutely not. I’m heading south now. Everyone is very scared here. That makes it a dangerous place to be. I recommend you leave.”
“We’ll see what our organization decides. We really hope we can stick it out.”
“Things won’t be calming down anytime soon. Good luck.”
“Thanks. Safe travels.”
The jeep gripped the pavement and turned south.
Our optimism shaken, we pushed on. I would return to my village and complete my mission, I reminded myself. Mali would overcome its current state of anarchy and the rebellion would be mitigated. It was a special country with a terribly sincere population, a democracy that neighboring countries were suppose to strive for, and cultural strategies for avoiding ethnic tension. Mali couldn’t succumb to turmoil.
Two army trucks rumbled towards the main highway. Soldiers and weapons piled on the bed. At the tail, an automatic weapon was installed. I turned around to notice the military base nearby. Several more machines lurched out from its entrance. Were they going north to counter the rebel advance, or turning south fleeing to the capital?
At the house we described our journey and listened to a grim analysis of the circumstances. “Amadou Sanogo has to demonstrate willingness to cede power. He must step down for an interim president and help develop plans for elections. If he demonstrates such cooperation, ECOWAS can unfreeze its economic sanctions. At this point, Peace Corps will be able to operate and we won’t get evacuated,” one friend explained.
Peace Corps had recently ceased operations in Mauritania, Niger, and Chad. Mali was next in line to be overwhelmed by security threats in the Sahel. Al Qaida affiliated groups were well established in the north. Terrorists had killed several Europeans in Tombouctou. Besides terrorism, a civil war was peaking between the Malian military and rebel Taureg seperatists, also in the north. Ghadafi’s death had redirected firepower into the hands of Tauregs and the conflict was getting bloody. Such problems had been in the periphery for years, until finally, the country imploded, shocking the world.
“A coup d’etat has occurred in the Malian capital, Bamako,” a female British voice had announced on my hand held radio. Never had a world news headline been so relevant to my life. A handful of soldiers, disgruntled by failures in the war with the Taureg rebels, had returned to the capital and ousted the governing body. They had stormed the main media outlet to announce the transition. I had stepped out of my hut that day to inform my neighbor that his government had been toppled. “Mali is bad,” he shook his head and returned to weaving a basket. A few hours later I received a text message:
The text message had been a mere inconvenience at first. I explained to my neighbors in my village that I would probably come back in a few days. They were suspicious but wished me safe journey. Sata told me not to leave. I promised her I would come back.
Before sunset, I left the house in Sevare. The streets were calm, but businesses remained mostly closed. We found a hotel bar willing to serve us drinks. We tried to keep the conversation positive. If we got evacuated, there was a chance we would directly transfer to another country. Fantasies of moving to Vanuatu or Mongolia mixed nicely with our beers. Or, with our adjustment allowance, we could travel anywhere before moving back to America. We discussed plans for Togo, Turkey, and Spain. We generated some excitement, but then my mind slipped back into a sad truth. We would be running away from desperate villages we had committed to help.
“Is everything OK?” Our regional manager found us on the street stopping for food.
“Yea, we’re fine. We were just on our way back to the house. What’s going on?” A friend had informed us on the phone that it was finally happening.
“We’re leaving tonight. C’mon, we have to go.”
“So the rumors are true. The rebels are coming.”
“No. The rebels are probably still far away, but the city is afraid and we don’t want to take any chances. It’s safer to move south. We’re chartering a bus. It will be ready soon.” He let us buy some street food and we walked back to the house.
The bus hadn’t arrived when we returned. Twenty volunteers sat outside among their baggage waiting to be escorted away from war. The group admitted defeat in silence. There was nothing worth saying. There was nothing worth thinking. I stuffed my clothes into my backpack and ate my beans and noodles.
At 9:00 pm we boarded a small bus.
I focused on the rhythms of the bus. Sometimes we stopped at police check points. Mostly, the driver flew us through outer space. The headlights beamed a narrow highway, but even that was black. The bus swept us away from rebels and terrorists and our homes. At midnight, we reached the safety of the next city, San.
The Peace Corps house there was dead, no guards to let us in. The volunteers consolidated in San were sleeping. We stood in the dim street wondering where we could spend the night. We were exhausted, anxious to move beyond purgatory. The sadness in my chest was swelling. I felt the end coming. Within a week we would board Air Ethiopia and evacuate the country. We would be torn away from people that we had struggled for so long to love and understand. From America, we would wonder what had become of the families that had fed us. Would they be happy? Would they be hungry? Would they wonder why I left when I had insisted I wanted to spend two years with them?
A fat rain drop hit the ground at my feet. Then another kissed the back of my hand. The dirt became blotched with water as the first mango rain of the season pattered down. I hadn’t felt precipitation in six months. Life splashed onto the parched earth, tumbling from the night. This was good bye. In the following months such sprinkles would mature into spectacular storms. The desert would recede making room for mud and soil. Workers in the cities would return to their villages and raise crops alongside their families and neighbors. From America though, all I could tell was “Mali is bad.”