In West Africa, ethnic nomad Tuareg rebels last year launched attacks in Niger's Saharan north, demanding more money and power for their desert communities. More than half the country is under a state of alert, making it easier for security forces to arrest anyone suspected of rebel ties. VOA reporter Phuong Tran recently accompanied two Nigerian university students on their clandestine trip to join the mountain rebellion.
Tuareg students Amoumene Ag Haidara and Mohamed Serge Maurice wait at a bus stop with other tourists visiting the desert town Timbuktu, Mali.
But touring one of the world's most ancient cities is not what brought them here.
They are meeting the second in command of the rebel Movement of Nigeriens for Justice to get his help to cross over into Niger to join a mountain rebellion.
Mountain rebels have renewed decades-old violence, demanding more power and services for the mostly Tuareg population in the north.
Despite the risks of this clandestine crossing, Maurice does not see another option. He says, "There are injustices and hatred that Tuareg endure, but there is no way we can talk about it openly. No one will listen to us, so there is nothing else we can do but to take up arms."
Tuareg rebels say Niger government officials have neglected nomad communities in the north, even though the region's uranium is one of the country's biggest moneymakers. The government refuses to negotiate with the rebels, calling them drug traffickers.
The rebels say a decade-old peace deal has failed to bring change to one of the most difficult places in the world to live.
The students join rebel leader Acharif Ag Mohamed El Moctar. They continue together to the Mali-Niger border. "But no safety. No security. [switching to French] Mie on s'approche de la frontière, il n'y a pas de la securit é. Ça c'est Claire," El Moctar said. "As we approach the border, the more dangerous it will become," he warns. They finish trip preparations in an abandoned house in Mali.
After a moonlit tire change, the group drives through the night, arriving at a plateau hidden by rocky boulders, within one hundred kilometers of the Niger border. This hideout becomes their base to buy and assemble weapons. Local Tuareg help them buy smuggled oil from Algeria. New military uniforms.
Three weeks and hundreds of kilograms of rice, barrels of oil and cartons of cigarettes later, the students continue to Niger. "When we take off, we will make it safely. God willing, we will arrive," Amoumene Ah Haidara, a rebel recruit said.
The group speeds into Niger, passing within kilometers of military garrisons, without encountering one control post. They stop only once to refuel.
One month after their trip began, the students arrive at the rebels' base in the Air Mountains of Niger. "At university, we debated different theories of social justice and reform. We have always wanted the chance to put into practice those ideas. Now is the time," Maurice said.