In one direction sped a tan-colored ambulance, red crescent glistening on its side as it wailed north across the Bamako’s Bridge of Martyrs toward the sound of gunfire. In the other came people. Hundreds, if not thousands of them, women with their market goods bundled atop their heads, young men talking little and walking quickly, green buses packed with young and old, escaping the army mutiny that shattered the peace of Mali’s laid-back capital.
Some of the residents broke into short, furtive runs as they carried what belongings they could on their backs. Amid the throng came fleets of Bamako’s ubiquitous mopeds, spluttering over the bridge, passengers riding pillion on every one of them. I looked hopefully for a taxi—none came—before starting out after the ambulance on foot, toward the River Niger’s left bank, where smoke had started to rise over the headquarters of the State broadcaster and was now mingling with the pall of dust that had lain over the city all day.
A clatter of machine gun fire greeted me at the far side and sent half a dozen women in brightly colored kangas scuttling behind the low concrete balustrade protruding from the bridge. A white pick-up, overloaded with men in tan uniforms and black flak jackets emblazoned with the word “Police” snarled south, in the same direction as the fleeing inhabitants. It was impossible to tell if they were government loyalists or mutineers but they bristled with weaponry, assault rifles and RPGs.
“There’s a rebellion against the President by the Army,” someone with his ear glued to a pocket radio told me, as we tried to decipher what was happening. Another pick-up of soldiers skidded to a halt and its occupants shouted incoherently at passers-by trying to cut east along the edge of the river. One stuck his rifle in a civilian’s face, and for single, horrible moment it seemed like that was it, and that the man was done. Then the soldiers were accelerating away, out over the vast blue expanse of the dazzling river where, unaffected by it all, fishermen kept solitary counsel.
A boy in a red t-shirt squatted on a lump of concrete by an underpass and told me his name was Abou Kouaté. “They’re attacking the ORTM”—the State broadcaster—“very close to here,” he explained, pointing past a soldier shutting off the street ahead with a metal barrier, and toward the high rise from which the smoke seemed to be coming. An RPG, or something like it, exploded noisily, leaving our ears ringing. “The Malian military is attacking the President of the Republic because of the war in the north,” Kouaté went on. He reckoned all the soldiers we could see, screeching around in tan uniforms and loosing off rounds, wildly, into the air, were mutineers.
“This is how civil wars start,” said one passer-by with admirable timing as a Kalashnikov round whipped overhead. He spat the words out disdainfully and continued steadily toward the shooting. There was another explosion and whoops from some of the steady stream of fugitive civilians, a few of whom seemed to be making a point of walking tall and slowly, with the lackadaisical ease of picnic-goers.
Among them I met Seck Dolo, a slightly down-at-the-heel tour guide in his early 30s, who told me he’d been waiting for customers in the lobby of the l’Amitie Hotel, opposite ORTM, when gunfire erupted outside—the high-pitched crack of Kalashnikov rounds, the deeper, belly grumble of heavy machine-guns and the boom of exploding grenades. “ATT”—Amadou Toumani Touré, the Malian president—“is very worried,” was his verdict. “Today Bamako is not Bamako. It’s trouble. There’s no work in Mali anyway and with things like this it’s impossible.” As dusk fell we parted ways. Shooting continued as renegade soldiers took control of intersections, lighting up the night sky with machine gun fire for no discernible reason.
Early Thursday morning, Malian soldiers appeared on state television to announce they had taken control of the country. They said a nationwide curfew was in place and that the constitution had been suspended. “The CNRDR … has decided to assume its responsibilities by putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Touré,” Amadou Konare, spokesman for the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) said, accusing Toure’s government of failing to end the Touareg insurgency in the country’s north, which has humiliated the army and inflicted heavy casualties since it began in January. There was no immediate word on the whereabouts of Touré.