By Phyllis Shier, College of Arts and Sciences

After navigating a coup and rebellion in West Africa with funding from a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant, a Washington State University English professor will share his first-person account in an e-book for a Washington Post publication.

Creative writing professor Peter Chilson’s investigative journalism will be the basis for the e-book, to be released early in December by Foreign Policy magazine. Tentatively titled We Never Knew Exactly Where: Dispatches from a Borderland in Africa, the book addresses the turmoil in Mali over the last year and how those problems relate to the legacy of Africa’s colonial borders.

Peter Chilson with Tuareg nationalists
Peter Chilson with Tuareg nationalists at the Mentao Red Cross refugee camp in northern Burkina Faso.

Chilson received a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to cover the crises from Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso for six weeks from mid-May to early June. The Pulitzer Center partners with worldwide media agencies to provide coverage on issues of global importance underreported in mainstream American media. Chilson was one of four writers to receive grants to cover borderland disputes around the world.

When applying for the Pulitzer grant, Chilson told Foreign Policy magazine that he was not a war correspondent. They gave him the job anyway.

“They told me I probably had a better grasp on the history,” he said. “I’m pretty well-versed in the history of the region—going back 1,200 years—right up to the present.”

In the wake of a coup

While few people in the U.S. note the significance of March 21, 2012, Chilson recalls it vividly.

“I got up and was looking at the news and I couldn’t believe it! There had been a coup d’etat in Mali,” he said, still marveling at the event.

The coup had both historical and personal implications for him. Historically, he said, it was important because Mali, after 20 years of democracy, had emerged as Africa’s shining example of progressive government—a status the coup erased. Chilson had recently spent three months in Mali doing research, but the coup required that he renew his perspective.

“I knew immediately that my entire project was now upside down, that I had to go back to Mali, but that what I now planned to do there was very, very different,” he said.

The coup in Mali’s capital city of Bamako (in the south) and the rebellion of Tuareg nationalists and Islamic jihadists that swallowed the country’s northern territories exploded simultaneously in March. Led by junior officers of Mali’s regular army, the coup protested the standing government’s lack of support for troops fighting the rebellion in the north.

By April 6, Mali’s army in the desert north had collapsed in confusion, Chilson said. As a result, rebel groups took the north, including the fabled city of Timbuktu, in less than two weeks, dividing the country in half. Mali remains split today.

More than 500,000 people have fled the north since the takeover, including some Tuareg nationalists who helped mount the coup, Chilson said. The nationalists do not share the vision of the jihadist groups that have seized control. The jihadists practice strict Shariah law. Thieves routinely lose their hands to amputation, Chilson said, and adulterers are stoned to death.

“This is the sad, sad thing—Islam was not their argument,” Chilson said of the Tuareg nationalists. Their agenda, secular in nature, was to preserve Tuareg culture by seeking an independent Saharan state. Historically, Chilson said, Tuaregs have resisted Islam.

“These rebels raced across 200,000 square miles of land in about 10 days, but their alliance began to fall apart almost immediately,” Chilson explained.

He said the Islamists undermined the Tuareg nationalist rebellion and made it their own. “This means the Tuaregs’ battle for their own Saharan state has faded.”

Some of the nationalists, he said, have even agreed to join forces with Mali to eventually recover the north.

Chilson added, “The Malian government and some of their military officers have told me personally, ‘We are going to reinvade the north—let there be no doubt!'”

Reporting from the front lines

Chilson arrived in Bamako on April 26. By May 1, Mali’s elite regiment of paratroopers, who were loyal to the government deposed on March 21, had mounted a counter coup against the regular armed forces in Bamako. The fighting lasted four days, after which the regular army regained control.

“I can hear all of this from my hotel—machine gun fire, mortar fire, it’s all going on,” Chilson said. “I traveled as much of the city as I could on foot and by car, but the army restricted the areas where the fighting was most intense.”

After the counter coup, Chilson and a Malian friend he hired as a guide and interpreter traveled to Mali’s central city of Mopti—which now borders the invaded northern region—to interview the defeated Malian soldiers and officials who fled there. From Mopti, Chilson traveled, under the constant threat of escalating violence, another 110 miles to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso.

“There was one point where I was in a town and we received word that it was about to be attacked by rebel bandits,” Chilson said. He spent the night there anyway so he could interview a Malian government official, who happened to be Tuareg, in the morning.

“I didn’t get much sleep,” he said.

Life under rebel rule

In addition to the ancient city of Timbuktu, Mali’s captured northern territories include the provincial cities of Gao and Kidal. Shariah law calls for the destruction of anything perceived as idolatry, a death knell for a region steeped in ancient culture. Timbuktu’s rich history, which extends back to the 13th century, has fallen victim to rebel destruction of its ancient mausoleums and mosques. The decimation is comparable to the Taliban’s destruction in 2001 of two massive sixth-century statues of Buddha in Afghanistan.

“I had an anthropologist from the University of Houston on the phone a few weeks ago for an interview, and she began to cry,” Chilson said softly. “She’s done a lot of work in northern Mali, she knows a lot of people up there, and she just began sobbing. It’s really a terrible thing.”

Also troubling, Chilson said, is that the jihadist rebels, who have ties to al-Qaida, also have access to Malian airstrips and a new arsenal of heavy weapons looted from Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently suggested these jihadist groups are tied to the deaths of the four American diplomats in Libya. The FBI is still investigating.

“Al-Qaida has a much more stable zone for itself than the borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Chilson said, comparing northern Mali to the 9/11 training ground. “They have a huge swath of desert that is very sparsely populated from which to operate. They can hide very easily in that desert.”

Peter Chilson
Peter Chilson
Documenting life during war and crisis

Chilson’s coverage of the crises in Mali has attracted national and international attention. Newsweek editor Tina Brown included Chilson’s reporting in the segment on NPR’s “Morning Edition” titled “Tina Brown’s Must-Reads.”

Of “Lost City,” Chilson’s article about Timbuktu, Brown noted, “. . . (the) piece highlights the destruction while also providing a beautiful picture of the city itself.”

Chilson also was interviewed on Public Radio International’s “The World,” just after he traveled the border of the jihadist-controlled zone in northern Mali.

Chilson first traveled to Africa in 1985 as a Peace Corps teacher in Niger, surviving “one of the worst droughts to hit West Africa in the last 200 years,” he said. His e-book about Mali will be his third book on West Africa.

“There were lots of tense situations, so I was used to negotiating my way through that . . . but I’ve never seen a coup,” Chilson said of his cumulative experiences in Africa.

“Occasionally, sitting in my house in northeast Portland, I can hear a shot fired in anger, and in parts of Chicago I’ve heard shots fired in anger, but not in Africa. Not until May 1.”

Chilson is also working on a separate literary nonfiction book project for University of Nebraska Press that provides a broader history of Africa’s colonial borderlands. His other book on Africa, Riding the Demon, won the Associated Writing Programs Award for nonfiction, and Disturbance-Loving Species: A Novella and Stories won the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fiction Prize.

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