Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ethnic Tuaregs left Mali to fight for Muammar Qaddafi. Now, some are returning home to tell their story
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.
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.