Halachi Maiga was present last March at the fall of Gao, in northeastern Mali. He remembers the shooting, the panic, the mud-daubed cars, the ransacked offices, the attackers crying "God is great!" Today, violent rule by gunmen has left him unsure of how peace can best be restored.
"I'm for a military intervention because I want to liberate my country, region, and city," says Mr. Maiga, a schoolteacher and youth activist. "And I'm against it for the simple reason that it's war, and no one can predict how a war will go."
Mali was hit by two successive shocks to its system this year, leaving its government fragile and its future uncertain. Last winter, nearly half the country was seized by ethnic Tuareg rebels, who were later elbowed aside by Islamist militants. In a whirl of action, a military coup soon unseated the democratically elected president just weeks before elections were to be held.
Instability is still rampant in the north, where Islamists reign largely uncontested. As Mali – and the wider world – look ahead to potential armed intervention, many question what is needed to pull it back from the brink of chaos. Western countries fear it could become a semifailed state like Afghanistan, serving as a regional launchpad for armed groups.
Potential intervention, described by diplomats as increasingly likely, concerns not only Malians like Maiga, whose lives have been upended by unrest. It also worries international aid agencies that warn of more refugees, civilian deaths, human rights abuses, and the potential for reprisal attacks.
"Planning for the day after is very important," says a Western diplomat who was not permitted to speak on the record. "Even with a successful intervention, if you don't restore central government control you risk the same problems returning."
Crowded playing field
Those problems have long been rooted in corruption and underdevelopment in northern Mali, which has helped spur periodic uprisings by some local Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic people related to North Africa's Amazighs, or Berbers.
In recent decades Islamist groups have also appeared in Mali – notably Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – uncontested by authorities and funded in part by increased drug trafficking.
Last year Tuareg fighters who served Libya's Muammar Qaddafi returned home, flush with heavy weaponry. Better armed than ever before, some of them swiftly launched a rebellion under the newly formed National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
While secularist, the MNLA entered a marriage of convenience with Islamist militant groups already present in Mali's north.
Today, nearly a year of conflict has transformed Mali into a crowded playing field, dominated by armed groups that jockey with local leaders, religious figures, and citizens organizations in a tense balance of power.
Last March, Mali's poorly equipped Army struggled to defeat these armed groups. Feeling inadequately supported by the government in their attempts to secure the north, exasperated Army officers staged a coup that toppled President Amadou Toumani Touré.
The coup backfired. As central control collapsed in Bamako, MNLA and Islamist militants descended on northern Mali's main cities, sweeping the region under their control in a matter of days.
'Want to erase Mali'
The armed groups attacked Gao early one Saturday at the end of March. Maiga was walking through the city center when he heard gunfire. Around him, people scattered.
"I saw them! I saw them!" cried one man, not breaking stride.
Maiga took off on his motorcycle. Then, rounding a corner, he saw them, too: a four-by-four truck, turbaned gunmen, and the black Islamist flag bearing the Muslim profession of faith. The next day he found gunmen pillaging government offices.
"They were even burning the archives," he says. "They want to erase Mali and create another state."
Two days later, MNLA leader Bilal Ag Cherif told prominent citizens and civil society leaders including Maiga, who is a member of Gao's regional youth council, that the Tuareg state of Azawad was a reality.
But ultimately the Islamists were stronger. A dispute in June with the MNLA ended in gunplay. With Mr. Ag Cherif believed wounded, the MNLA fled Gao. A similar shift occurred across the north. Soon Islamist militants controlled the main cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal, enforcing their brand of Islamic law.
A Sept. 25 report by Human Rights Watch cites brutal punishments, including beatings of people caught listening to music and women who fail to cover themselves, and amputations of the hands of alleged thieves.
Yet in Gao at least, Islamist rule has limits, says Maiga. Islamist leaders there are often obliged to work with local religious figures and citizens who represent the interests of the community.
Sometimes Malians resist the new rules, and tension mounts. In August, a protest called by a popular radio journalist in Gao stopped the hand amputations of four alleged thieves, Maiga says. Islamist fighters abducted and beat the journalist in retaliation, sparking a riot by angry locals. The journalist slipped out of town and made his way safely to Bamako.
For now, momentum for an intervention is building internationally, diplomats say.
A United Nations resolution authorizing intervention there is widely expected. The basic idea is to train an intervention force of Malian and other West African soldiers, retake Mali's north, and restore government rule, says the Western diplomat.
"There's broad consensus on what needs to be done," says the diplomat, citing the United States, France, and Germany as countries deeply involved in planning. However, "the timeline has yet to be determined."
According to a planning document drafted by ECOWAS and recently cited by Reuters, an intervention could take up to six months to prepare, with Mali's summer rainy season threatening to complicate potential deployment.
Aid agencies, meanwhile, say much preparation is needed to cope with humanitarian problems that military intervention would likely generate.
The UN's agency for refugees says that fighting could more than double the number of refugees and internally displaced, currently tallied at 412,149 people. To date, the agency has obtained just over half of the $123.5 million needed to deal with the situation, says its West Africa director, Valentin Tapsoba. Intervention would raise costs dramatically.
Other aid agencies, like UNICEF, warn that intervention forces must be trained in human rights and the needs of families and children.
"In conflict, you can have children being killed or injured, or recruited as soldiers," says Gabrielle Menezes, a UNICEF communications officer in Bamako. "It's something we're very concerned about."
'Three pillars of power'
Where armed bullying, lack of goods and services, and sheer violence have disrupted life in Mali's north, Bamako is the scene of a different kind of breakdown. While daily life there proceeds normally, politics are stuck in crisis mode.
An interim government was named in August, five months after the initial coup. But diplomats say coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo still wields influence from his military headquarters at Kati, outside Bamako.
"Just look at any delegation," says the diplomat. "They'll have meetings with the [interim] president and prime minister, and some ... will go up to Kati and meet Sanogo as well. It's fair to say there are three pillars of power now."
In theory, presidential elections are scheduled for next April. But the uncertainties surrounding a possible intervention by West African countries, backed by Western governments, have cast that into doubt. Diplomats in Bamako say many here feel elections must come only after victory in the north.
The US has pushed hard for Mali to restore democratic rule sooner than later. While some European countries have restarted development aid, the US will not do so until after elections, says the diplomat.
"It's absolutely in the interest of the Malian people to have elections soon," the diplomat says. "The longer you wait, the more people become entrenched in the status quo."
'A place at the table'
At present, the status quo in Mali is marked by divisions: between north and south, and among armed groups and political players. Some Malians fear crisis will leave their society – a tapestry of languages, races, and cultures – torn along sectarian lines into similar disharmony.
That fear is compounded by the recent appearance of anti-Islamist militia groups – how well-armed remains unclear – that have formed in areas of Mali bordering the north. Some Tuareg also fear reprisals because of anger at the MNLA over the initial takeover.
For the Western diplomat, these fears underscore the need for dialogue. Ansar al Din, one of the Islamist groups currently ruling in the north, has met recently – albeit so far inconclusively – with neighboring Burkina Faso's president, Blaise Compaore, who is acting as a mediator with the Malian government.
Some hope that negotiations "will result in ... minimizing the enemy," the diplomat says.
Maiga, the schoolteacher from Gao, wants leaders to remember that Mali is larger than the sum of its combatants. "Dialogue must include not only those with weapons," he says. "Even those without deserve a place at the table."