There were three of us.
Idriss Anu drove the Toyota truck that would be stolen by militants. Daoud Hari was the translator, and for this he would eventually pay with severe beatings. We were en route to the village of Furawiya when the pro-government guerrillas rose silently from the grass.
“Stay in the car,” Daoud said.
But it was already too late. Even as the gunmen sauntered up, their hair matted in dreadlocks and their chests slung with small blackened things that looked like dried ears but which were Koranic amulets, we still hadn’t grasped that we had crossed a threshold where it no longer mattered what passport you carried, that you were young and loved, that your skin was supposedly not of a torturable color, or that you were a noncombatant. Words had lost all currency as words, and by the time the grinning teenager with the Kalashnikov reached for my door handle, we were condemned to live and die according to choices made by others. We had become truly Sahelian.
The Sahel is a line.
But it is also a crack in the heart—a tightrope, a brink, a ledge. See how its people walk: straight-backed on paths of red dust, placing one foot carefully before the other, as if balanced upon a knife edge. The Sahel is a bullet’s trajectory. It is the track of rains that fall but never touch the sand. It is a call to prayer and a call for your blood, and for me a desert road without end.
Gaga refugee camp, Chad
My journey began among refugees in eastern Chad. This is where I met George Bush’s father.
Bush tyrannized his family’s small plot of sand. He threw his mother’s battered dishes to the ground, pulled on visitors’ noses, and scampered away giggling. He got away with this because he was an only son. His elder sister, age four, despised him. Bush was fat-cheeked and two. “Boosh!” the refugees cooed. “Boosh-ka!” He was clearly a great camp favorite. This was in the Gaga settlement, where more than 7,000 Darfuris lived and died under UN canvas.
“Only George Bush can stop the Arabs in our land,” said Bush’s papa, Ahmed Juma Abakar. He corralled the boy in his lap. “When he grows up, he will help kill them.”
Multiple lines of identity were braided through Abakar. He was a coffee-colored African with a puff of white hair on his chin. He was a Masalit, a member of one of the African farming tribes driven out of Darfur at gunpoint by the janjaweed, the Arab nomads armed by the Arab-dominated government of Sudan. He detested Arabs. Yet he himself spoke Arabic. He also served sugary tea in shot glasses like an Arab, wore a white Arabic robe, and prayed five times a day toward Mecca. I, too, find this puzzling.