DIABALY, Mali (AP) — It was dusk when the aging Toyota pickup truck pulled into the first military checkpoint, loaded with at least 17 bearded men fingering prayer beads.
This pinprick of a village in central Mali is not even large enough to appear on most administrative maps. Cars pass through here so rarely that donkeys fall asleep in the center of the highway.
The preachers were coming from Mauritania and had paperwork showing they were on their way to a religious conference in Mali's capital, 270 miles (430 kilometers) away. None of them was armed.
Soldiers arrested them and brought them to a military camp. There they opened fire on the stationary truck, spraying it with their machine guns. Then they dragged out the corpses, buried them in a mass grave and launched a manhunt for those who had escaped.
Within 1½ hours of the car arriving at the checkpoint, 16 of the 17 men were dead.
The AP has found that rank-and-file soldiers carried out the massacre of their own accord, ignoring not only the normal rules of engagement but also their own command structure. Their actions show just how much the military of this once-stable nation has broken down since a coup six months ago, with officers no longer able to control their troops.
These concerns about Mali's military come at a time when the world is considering sending arms, equipment and troops to help it take back the north, which has fallen to Islamic extremists. Just this week, the United Nations Security Council instructed Mali's neighbors to submit a detailed plan for military intervention, which the U.N. would support.
"It's as if Mali has fallen into a coma," said analyst Gilles Yabi, the West Africa director for the International Crisis Group and author of a recent report on this troubled country. "The reality on the ground is that it's the rank-and-file soldiers that are now in power. ... And it's in this context that you can explain such a grave blunder as what we saw happen in Diabaly."
Mali is a country of 15.8 million people that is turning into an ungoverned vaccuum, a source of increasing worry for the rest of the world. It's been exactly six months since junior officers overthrew the democratically elected government on March 22. In the wake of the coup, rebels allied with al-Qaida seized control of the north, creating a new haven for extreme Islam.
It was into this turmoil that the group of preachers stumbled, at around 7 p.m. on the night of Sept. 8. The AP has pieced their story together through interviews with the one known survivor, two police officers present at the time of the attack and their superior, diplomats, villagers, and family members in Mauritania, who prepared their bullet-riddled bodies for burial.
The Toyota minibus with plate No. 0148AN00 RIM rolled in just as dark was enveloping the bridge at Dogofri, nine miles (15 kilometers) north of Diabaly. Anyone in these parts would have recognized the letters RIM as standing for Republique Islamique de la Mauritanie, or Mauritania, Mali's more religious neighbor to the north.
The preachers included at least nine Mauritanians and seven Malians, ranging in age from 25 to 54. They belonged to the Dawa Tablighi, a fundementalist but non-violent current of Islam.
The Mali military had been instructed to monitor members of the sect, especially those trying to enter from neighboring countries, according to an internal memo dated Sept. 5, seen by Amnesty International.
"In view of the situation in the north of the country," the memo from the Department of Home and Security said, "It seems appropriate to consider steps to better marshal this association, particularly with regard to foreign participants, in order to limit their entry into the national territory."
The preachers met up in Fassala, a town at the Mauritanian border.
Two of them had tried to come to Mali in July but had been turned back. So to make sure they wouldn't have any problems, they hired Moctar Bechir, a Malian truck driver who frequently transports merchandise from Mauritania to Mali.
On Sept. 8, the truck had already been rented by a wholesaler transporting about a ton of beans. The preachers sat squished together in the cab and on top of the sacks of beans, said 51-year-old Maouloud Ould Sidi Mohamed, the sole confirmed survivor of the massacre, in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
The preachers were stopped at the entrance to Dogofri, where police checked their identity cards and asked questions. The paramilitary police, or gendarmes, wrote down the list of names in a register, a copy of which the AP saw.
They were stopped again at the bridge, this time by the military. That's when the trouble started.
"There was a young man with us, Amane. He has a really nice beard," said Mohamed. "When they saw him, they got suspicious."
They sent the men inside and searched the car. All they found, Mohamed said, was a couple of pots.
Then they started to interrogate the preachers, one by one. They opened one man's bag, and found clothes and a bar of soap. Then they put the men back in the Toyota and drove them to Diabaly, in a caravan between two pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.
When they saw what the soldiers were doing, the gendarmes radioed their commander. He instructed them to send one police officer to follow the convoy on his scooter. All the gendarmes who spoke to the AP requested anonymity out of fear for their safety.
It takes less than 20 minutes to drive from Dogofri to Diabaly, a nine-mile-long dirt road of red earth beaten down by the tires of lorries. The road is lined by rice paddies on the left and a tributary of the Niger River on the right.
On that evening, like on every other, women bathed in the river topless and laid their laundry to dry out on the rocky ground. Just about the loudest sound on any normal night is the high-pitched braying of a donkey.
When the caravan arrived at the camp, the gendarme and the soldiers in the two accompanying cars went into the commander's office. Just 15 minutes later, the shooting erupted.
The gendarme ran back out and saw bodies lying on the ground. He called his superior to say the soldiers were killing the preachers. The senior officer confirmed to the AP that he received the call between 8 and 9 p.m.
"It's due to the indiscipline inside the army," said the senior officer. "The night that this happened, everyone knows which soldiers were on duty. They decided themselves, without being given an order, and without consulting with their higher-ups to do this."
The survivor, Mohamed, said the men in the truck could hear the soldiers discussing what to do with them.
"I don't think my friends could have imagined what was about to happen," said Mohamed. "But I knew. I know this country. And I understood that it was over for us."
When the shooting suddenly started, Mohamed saw people falling around him. He himself fell and hid between the cadavers in the bed of the truck.
A few moments later, he saw two people try to run. He followed them out of the car, crawling between the wheels of the lorry.
He reached a small wall. While climbing it, he lost his shoe. So he left the other one behind, ran barefoot across the rice paddies and jumped into a canal. His robe hung heavy with water, so he took it off. He swam in his underwear and undershirt.
On the other side, he hid by some trees. He says he saw the light from the torches of the soldiers looking for him.
He hid for five days. On the night of Sept. 13, they found him and took him back to the camp.
Mohamed was held by the military incommunicado for a week. He was transfered from Diabaly to a garrison in the capital, Bamako, where he was kept under constant watch. He was too afraid to even speak with an envoy from the Mauritanian embassy.
He was released this Thursday after immense diplomatic pressure, and spoke to the AP inside the Mauritanian embassy in the minutes before he was whisked off to the airport. Both Malian and Mauritanian officials confirmed his identity. The soles of his feet were pockmarked by gashes after five days of walking without shoes.
If you follow the red dirt highway another 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) south, you reach the village of Kourouma. Souma Diallo, a 40-year-old machine operator, was getting ready to go to sleep at around midnight on Sept. 8 when he heard people shouting.
He stepped out and saw the soldiers had caught an old man with a long beard. His hands were tied with his own turban. The man's whereabouts remain unknown.
Diallo also saw a young man who was bleeding from his head. It was the truck driver, Moctar Bechir — whom Diallo recognized because both have extended family in nearby Niono. Diallo told the soldiers he knew the young man, handed over his phone and asked the driver to call people who could confirm his identity.
A few days later, on Sept. 12, the soldiers returned to Diallo's home and arrested him, he said. They accused him of complicity "with the rebels."
They brought him to the camp and started screaming at him. The soldiers had blood-shot eyes, like they were drugged, he said. When they briefly left him alone, Diallo bolted, crawled through a hole in a wall and ran for his life.
Behind the kitchen, he came face-to-face with the driver, Bechir. He was tied to a bench with a rope around his waist. They said nothing to each other.
Diallo spoke to the AP from his hiding place in a different part of Mali on the condition that his whereabouts not be disclosed.
In the days after the shooting, nine bodies with multiple bullet wounds were repatriated to Mauritania. Seven were buried in a municipal cemetery in Bamako. Mali issued a government communique expressing deep condolences, but stopping short of taking responsibility for the deaths.
Col. Idrissa Traore, director of public relations for the Malian military, acknowledged that the troops at Diabaly had violated the command structure. But he noted that the preachers came from the former sect of Iyad Ag Ghali, the head of one extremist group now controlling Mali's north.
Traore said the military had kept Mohamed for a week because he was "in a bad psychological state," and they wanted to question him.
"An investigation is in process to determine all of this. And once we are done, we will make a declaration," he said.
Representatives of the families of the dead have met with the minister of defense. He denied knowing anything about the driver.
Hassane Bechir, the 44-year-old brother of the driver, now spends his days waiting inside a room in Bamako. He smokes cigarettes, his dull eyes watching the passing images on a television a few feet away.
"So long as I don't have proof that he is dead, then to me, he is alive," said the missing man's older brother. "They haven't given me a body. At the very least, give me his body."
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report.