Blogging the road 2 Timbuktu
The Doctor and Betsy at Fatimata's compound, Boni Mali
Before I take you on from Boni in Mali across 90kms of sahelian bush to Burkina Faso, Djibo and the Mentao refugee camp with Radwan to talk to the family post arrest and liberation, about returning back again with him to Timbuktu and their land of Ewett, let me remind you of the context that I was aware might greet me in Burkina Faso.
A week to 10 days previously, when I was en route to the refugee camps for the first time from Bamako, I had been alerted by an incident that happened to Hannah, a tourist client of mine, that I might run into problems at the Mentao refugee camp with the Burkina police and CONAREF, the Burkina Faso authority in charge of the refugee camps.
Hannah had been in Burkina and the camps with guides and friends of mine for about a week. During this time the Festival in the Desert came to town with their Caravan of Peace and she was now awaiting my arrival as she wanted to join the return of Radwan as she worked with refugees in Canada.
Hannah had called me as I was en route for the camp to say the Burkina police had taken her passport away and were accusing her of working with me to repatriate the refugees - crime of crimes! I assumed this was prompted by CONAREF.
Oddly the police “knew all about” my project and had been following the movements of my Landcruiser “the doctor” that Hannah was using. Given I had not been to the camps for four months how did they know that the car was mine? Someone will have had to have pointed out that the vehicle Hannah was using was mine. The police for some reason thought I was already in the camps - why would the police on their own suspect this? They reported that “I had no right” to take any refugees home. Again, this is not the Burkina police’s domain, it is CONAREF’s.
Hannah and Mohammed were ordered to leave Burkina without returning to the camp and without taking anybody else with them. So they left for Boni, 90 kms north of Djibo in Mali, and we arranged to meet there.
Hannah and Mohammmed in Fatimata's camp, Boni Mali
This had to have come from CONAREF, but where had the tip off to them come from?
I had been aware that the rumour mill had been working overtime in the camps about a white man coming to take everyone home and I knew that there were certain interests inside and outside the camps who didn’t want me to succeed with my Radwan plan for their own self interest. Anyone profiting personally or politically from the refugees was against any return. People and families with a position of responsibility in the camps, perhaps getting paid, have an interest in the refugees remaining as back in their real world they have no position. CONAREF themselves will be without purpose once the refugees go home, the UN funds will stop, all the benefits of hosting refugees will disappear.
CONAREF had very specific information on me that had to have come from someone who knew my program well and had a personal interest for me not to succeed. Many other groups of refugees had already returned. This was not about CONAREF or the police not wanting individual families of refugees returning, it was about not wanting me to succeed with my own project.
Now, around 16 Feb 2014, we were back in Boni, 60 kms from the Burkina border and 90 kms from the camp, freed from the gendarmerie and about to take Radwan and Ishmael back to Djibo and the Mentao camp to address the family.
As the various uniforms - military, gendarme, plain - and shades approached the car Reservoir Dogs style Radwan stared straight ahead unflinching. Ishmael, in the back seat next to me, was uneasy - he had not his father's experience of the battlefield to fall back on. The foot passengers looked on waiting for the action and were sent on their way. An element waved me to put down my camera.
"You and you" pointing to Radwan and Ishmael "get down from the car".
Ismael had gone into an automatic trance and was doing as ordered. I got out. "I'm the group leader, what's going on?"
"You are to be escorted to the gendarmerie. These two must go in the pick up".
"All of us to be escorted?"
"Then why can't they stay in my car to the gendarmerie?"
"These two are going in the pick up"
"The old man is 86, he's weak and frail and can't walk."
"Today he will walk".
Radwan is greeted back by an old friend on the ferry moments before his arrest
All quiet on the Burkina Frontier as Presidential Election Day takes place in Mali. Where is everybody?
Election day went by with hardly a ripple in the Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso, though the wind did pick up in the evening followed by a wall of sand and dust and a quick African storm.Apart from that, a lazy day was had by all.
The momentous democratic date in Mali’s history passed us by. Probably because no one seemed to care - either inside the camps or outside. No state functionary, no interim government minister, no UN monitors, no ECOWAS representative, no presidential candidate, no international or domestic journalists or media came in the lead up to the election nor indeed for the day itself.
No one seemed to know where they were to vote and nobody had their voting cards. Some had receipts which should deliver a card on polling day. At the Malian embassy in Ouagadougou a few days before the election the Ambassador was going through a few pages of electoral lists. He admitted the camps had all been mixed up and asked my friend to help identify those he knew and explain where they were.
As the French and Chadian armies sweep the AQMI mafia groups back to their adopted home in the Tuareg heartland of the Adar Des Iforas, the Malian army are inexplicably being left behind by the French campaign to reassert its own control, pretty much unmonitored over the liberated regions.
This is the military that crumbled before the MNLA rebellion that kick started the crisis, the military that enacted the coup d’etat that allowed the MNLA take over of the north and the islamist invasion, the military who recently had a pop at each other in Bamako, and the military who have over the course of Mali’s history committed atrocities against the northern population.
Now the international games of charades and musical chairs, of Al Qaeda, coup d’etats and islamist ideology, of acronym wars, of AQMI, MUJAO and Ansar Dine are coming to an end. Now we are back to square one. Mali and the Tuareg, north and south, black and white.
The lyrics are old and have long been written in the country’s national slogan: “Un Peuple, Un But, Un Foi” - One People, One Goal, One Faith. Before, this slogan was repeated with a plea for unity in this historically divided country. Today there is something sinister in the cry, a tone that suggests “One Scape Goat” should be added to the slogan.
Although Malians in the south saw their army and political class wither away without a fight against the MNLA rebellion; although they openly acknowledge that their popular President ATT handed over his seat of power out of expediency and thus enabled the coup d’etat and the subsequent division of the country; and although they then all looked on exasperated as the unknown coup leader Captain Sanago, the weak remnants of government and a divided and demoralised military did nothing, and so permitted, the mafia terrorist (AQMI) allies of their former President, with his homemade militia (MUJAO), to take over the north from the secular separatists (MNLA) and threaten sharia law and the making of an Afghanistan of Mali, for the Bamakois there is only one culprit for their nation’s year of charades.
It really is impossible not to love Mali. However bad things seem to get here on the uber political level where acronyms play charades on CNN and BBC, talking of AQMI, MUJAO and UNHCR, things on the ground remain reassuringly human business as usual.
As 2012 wound up and Malian's contemplated the worst year in their independent history, the UN announced its imaginative new strategy for dealing with the country's crisis: nothing until September 2013. Prior to this Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, described the French plan for intervention in Mali as "crap".
At this point the spectre of another Somalia or Africa's Afghanistan looked like a horrifyingly realistic prospect as the international community turned its back on the black hole that Mali was becoming.
At the outset of the Mali crisis I felt that the worst possible scenario was France getting involved on its own. Being the former colonial power it has complicated relations with the different parties, and their intersts in the resources of the region worried me. But now I find myself in a strangely upbeat mood. At last someone is doing something.
In consultation with the Burkina Faso government, the organisers of the Festival In the Desert have announced that the Festival In the Desert in Exile slot on the Caravan of Peace, 20-22 February 2013, has been moved to a location close to Ouagadougou to better guarantee the security of the festival.
The festival was to be held at Orsi in the north of Burkina Faso.
While the islamists hold the region in Mali north of the Burkina border, an incursion into Burkina Faso for an attack on the festival itself is unlikely (see below). However, Orsi was felt to be too close to the border with Mali for comfort and so to safeguard the security of the festival it has been moved to a site close to the capital.
This is a good move. Of all the sites of the caravan, Orsi was the closest to islamist territory. This keeps the route of the caravan from Bamako to Segou and down to Burkina Faso for the Festival itself very secure all over.
On Monday night, as he was about to leave for Paris, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, Mali's interim Prime Minister was arrested at his home in Bamako, bundled into a car and driven off to face Captain Sanago and his junta. Someone didn't want Mr Diarra to get to Paris.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning - sweating, shocked and tired - Diarra addressed the nation on TV:
"Our country is living through a period of crisis. Men and women who are worried about the future of our nation are hoping for peace. It's for this reason that I, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, am resigning along with my entire government on this day, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. I apologize before the entire population of Mali."
Mali suffered its second bloodless coup this year, just as the glimmer of hope of dialogue between the Malian government, MNLA and Ansar Dine seemed to be appearing on the horizon.
It is hard to see who gains from Diarra's removal, especially if you are looking at this from the perspective of searching for a solution.
The Berbers are a proud race with one of the longest histories on earth. They called North Africa their home long before the arrival of the Arabs. Their culture is believed to date back more than 4,000 years and ancient Berber states called Mauritania and Numidia existed in classical times.
Between the 11th and 13th centuries, two great Berber dynasties – the Almoravids and the Almohads – much of north-west Africa and parts of Spain. Today, there are substantial Berber populations in Morocco and Algeria, plus smaller numbers in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
Timbuktu is an evocative name. For over a millenium it has conjured travel, mystery and adventure, salt, gold and knowledge. It is a town located where the Niger River flows northward into the desert. Timbuktu was founded by the Tuareg Imashagan in the 11th century and thanks to its unique geographical position, it became a natural meeting point for Tuareg, Songhai, Wangara, Fulani and Arabs. From the 11th century onwards, Timbuktu became an important port where goods from West Africa and North Africa were traded. Timbuktu is also the crossroads “where the camel meets the canoe," a place of traders and middle-men. Timbuktuians say of their history: gold came from the south, salt from the north, and Divine Knowledge, from within.
This article was written in 2009. I will update it soon.
Rather than lifting Africa out of the realm of myth and placing it on a more real, transparent and honest footing with the rest of the world, international politics and specifically the “war on terror” have encouraged a new mythology around security in “the dark continent”.