The rebel commander, his face hidden behind a dark turban, leads the way over the soft sand, scorched black in places by exploded mortar shells and littered with detritus from a series of battles waged here, on a children's soccer field.
With nearly every stride, our feet crunch spent rifle cartridges. "Step in my steps," he cautions, noting that the Niger army had mined the area, where there had been a school for Tuareg. His men removed some of the devices; others remained lost in the shifting sands. "Maybe they are buried too deep to explode if you step on one."
It is late afternoon in the dry season, and the temperature has finally slipped below 100°F. The beige dunes stretching to the north begin to take on a pink hue, and the shadows from the steep ridges to the southwest are spreading across the valley floor. In this lonely valley called Tazerzaït, where the Aïr Massif meets the great sand seas of the Sahara, the commander's men had won the greatest victory of their two-year rebellion against the Niger government.