TOMBOUCTOU, Mali -- A low, wailing song reaches from the mosques of this ancient town of mud houses and sand dunes to the tent of Adama Alhadan, who sits in the flicker of a campfire, talking of rebellion.
"I sell crafts to the tourists," he says. "I have no time for war. But be cautious of others who tell you this. The rebels are all around, especially here in Tombouctou. Their armies hide in the desert. The guns can sound at any time."
Mr. Alhadan is a Tuareg nomad, a "peau rouge," or "pink skin," so called for his light, Moorish complexion that distinguishes the Tuaregs of northern Mali from the darker-skinned residents of southern Mali.
"The Tuaregs are a proud people brought very low," Mr. Alhadan says, puffing on a brass-and-ebony pipe bulging with sweet, black tobacco. "This rebellion, it is about dignity as much as it is freedom."
It began 21 months ago, with an attack on a foreign aid station in the rough regions of far eastern Mali, and virtually has closed the country's vast desert areas to normal commerce.
The Tuareg rebellion has been little noticed on the international stage, overshadowed by ethnic fighting in Yugoslavia, Iraq and the former Soviet Union. This is a forgotten war where a forgotten people fight for a forgotten patch of sand.
"The same flames that burn all over the world burn here, too," said Taskwit Incha, a 32-year-old nomad forced to flee the fighting. "But we are so far away that no one can see the smoke."
Villages have been attacked, military convoys ambushed. A government checkpoint on the Niger border was blown up. Scores of people have been killed, and countless more have simply disappeared into the desert, either robbed, left to die or forced into the struggle.
Tourists and aid workers have been kidnapped, stripped and robbed. Dozens of vehicles have been stolen by rebels who use them in their fighting or sell them to finance the rebellion. Mali citizens who speak the Tuaregs' Tamashek language have been forced to join their desert army.
In the chaos spawned by the fighting, lawlessness has flourished. The robberies and kidnappings have all but halted commerce and tourism, further disrupting an already shattered economy.
The Mali military, frustrated by its failure to quell the uprising, has also at times resorted to brutal methods. In November, 10 ordinary citizens of the predominantly Tuareg town of Menaka were picked out of the crowd by soldiers and gunned down in retaliation for a Tuareg attack on a military convoy the previous week.
Meanwhile, thousands have fled from the desert to the impoverished river towns of the arid Sahel region, their football-shaped tents clustered like barnacles on every spot of open ground. Many more have fled across the Niger River to the south, searching for jobs that don't exist in a region as yet untouched by the conflict.
In December, the rebels attacked Tombouctou, revered as one of Islam's holy sites. They stormed out of the night, spraying the governor's palace with bullets. The holes are still there, puckered in the sun.
"It was very bad," said Aicha Boubacar, who runs a vegetable stall in the central market. "Guns shooting in all directions, people dying. You could not move on the streets. No one believed this could ever happen in Tombouctou."
The Tuaregs are fighting, essentially, for a return to the past, when they were known as the "aristocrats of the desert," the "veiled ones," famous for the great swaths of cloth they wrapped around their heads and faces. They alternately protected and attacked the great camel caravans that brought the loot of Africa's Gold Coast to the Moroccan trading centers on the other side of the Sahara Desert.
They lived like lords in a strict hierarchy that included clerics, artisans, scholars and, at the bottom, black-skinned slaves.
The beginning of the end was on Dec. 16, 1893. French troops won the Battle of Tombouctou, driving the Tuaregs out of their capital and deep into the desert. Trade shifted from the caravan routes to the sea, and the Tuaregs sank into poverty.
By the mid-1950s, they were only one of several ethnic groups fighting the French for control of the region. When independence came in 1960, and the country of Mali was created, the center of power was in the south, where the black agricultural tribes of the Bambara and the Dogon dominate.
In 1963, the Mali military eliminated the last remaining Tuareg resistance, leaving the former aristocrats in control of only a small patch of desert.
The final, crushing blow came in 1973.
A year of crippling drought wiped out virtually all the great Tuareg herds of goat and sheep and cattle. The few who managed to hang on were laid low when the drought returned in 1984.
"Those who stayed in the bush became very poor," explained Nouh Aginfa Yattara, a minister in Tombouctou. "Those who came to the town became servants or beggars. Many of the young men hired themselves out to be warriors to other people."