Blogging the road 2 Timbuktu

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CONAREF ban me from entering the Burkina Faso refugee camps

Fatimata's compound, Boni Mali

The Doctor and Betsy at Fatimata's compound, Boni Mali

Feb 2014

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 Mohammed

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.


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Radwan and Ishmael arrested in Timbuktu but the lion of Ewett returns

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 greeted by an old friend on the ferry moments before his arrest

Radwan is greeted back by an old friend on the ferry moments before his arrest

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Reading Other Worlds and Strange Ways

15 January 2014

Today is Mohammed's birthday.

Not one of my many friends called Mohammed, or either of the three Mohammeds that have saved my sanity and this whole journey, THE Mohammed, the prophet, the one who received the Quran, who spawned the fastest growing religion in the world, the religion that is ubiquitous in the Sahara and West Africa and that has given this part of the world its ways, and of course, some would say, the religion at root of many of the problems in the world today.

Mohammed received the Qur'an (meaning recitation) in suras (chapters) over many years. When he received the suras Mohammed would go into a trance and recite and his words were taken down by scribes. "Read" is the first word of the first sura Mohammed received. Throughout the Quran the reader or listener is instructed to be reasonable and to use reason to interpret the world.

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Betsy towed 500km across the Sahara to find a messenger had arrived in Nouakchott

My attempts to find a tow in the freight lorries' park where the truks await for their escort across Mauritania to Senegal came to nothing - too loaded up or foreign trucks that could not take the chance - so that night Betsy and I were pushed across the final frontier. I decided to hang with her rather than return to Nouadibou with Cheick who would look for a local truck going to Nouakchott.

I eat chicken and chips and salad that was about an hour and a half late, slept in my tent in the back of Betsy 10 meters on from the gate which consisted of a chain across the road, to be awoken at dawn by the morning's border traffic lining up to go to Morocco.

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High Tailing it out of Morocco and not a jolly Christmas on the Mauritanian border

Dawn. Boxing Day. Nouadibou, Mauritania, after the worst Christmas Day on the Morocco Mauritania border. No family, no friends, no food, a little water, not a tinsel or coloured light to be seen, no telly, no games, no alcohol and not a wrapped present awaiting.

I spent the day explaining Betsy's drastic situation to officials: why I had no engine, why Betsy had to be carried to the border on the back of another truck, why I was alone...

Betsy gets carried out of Morocco


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Why am I doing this and why should you care?

10 Dec 2013, Rabat Morocco

Now I have broken the barrier and am finally in Africa proper I can see the journey ahead and turn my attention again to its purpose: the refugees in Burkina Faso, Radwan and his family, my friends and the people I have grown to know this year.

Why should you care if I get across the Sahara, through Mauritania, into Mali with an old truck so I can help some friends? A hundred or so people I can hope to help - it's a drop in the ocean! There are 50,000 in Burkina Faso alone. What impact can this possibly have in the greater scheme of things in Mali?

And why should it concern you anyway that some obscure dispossessed people go home? Hey shit happens, the world is a complicated place and this is Africa after all!

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Mohammed "Mouss" and Parking Marmeta to the Rescue

Mohammed Mouss and Maud in Parking Marmeta1 Dec 2013, Ceuta, Spain on the African continent

We rolled into a maelstrom of parked cars and laughing smoking men ushering us into a wired off parking lot perched on a windy hillock between the coast road to the Morocco border. Cars tables, people had to be moved so intricate backing could be performed. When all was done we were ushered out of the strengthening wind by the main man with brown stained front teeth (those left) into an old van that was now, he explained a sitting/dining/tv/office for him and his staff. "Mohammed Mouss welcome to Parking Marmeta". 

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The third blow in 24 hours and everything grinds to a halt.

I must apologise for my silence. I have been writing, but as may become clear in the following pieces, as well as being trapped physically in a corner of Europe on Africa my computer began playing up which meant attempting to overhaul my opertaing system whilst stuck outside cyber space. On all fronts I've been cornerered! Plus as will become clear, major re-thinking about how to go forwards has been going on daily.

Events of my last post seem a lifetime away. I will try to catch you up.


28 Nov 2013, Ceuta, Spain

Oddly, I slept well in Betsy the night the border prevented our military convoy passing, better than I had since we left England. With the stress of worrying about Joe and Emma gone and having reconciled the thought of going forwards without a mechanic, the border issue seemed a minor obstacle.


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Betsy and Maud cause more problems...

Betsy Bedford and Guy Lankester, copyright Michael MeredithPhoto ©Michael Meredith.

The border lights loom ahead. It's midnight as our metal convoy rolls up and joins the queue of loaded up cars returning with Spanish goods to Morocco. Ancient elephants amongst burdened donkeys.

Borders, arbitrary scars across the landscape of human history, symbols of conflict and "security", mankind's crossing points from one system of control to another, restrictions to our primal urge: migration.


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A Story of Two Fat Ladies as the Return 2 Timbuktu Departs

Betsy and Maud climb through an English village. Photo ©Michael Meredith

All photos © Michael Meredith

This is Betsy and Maud.

They have got me into a bit of trouble at the southernmost point of Europe and the northernmost point of Africa. From here I can see Morocco, Spain and a piece of Britain. But to reach my goal and achieve my aim I know i can no longer do this alone, I now need to garner support.
So I must tell our story. Over the next few weeks I will be telling the story of Return 2 Timbuktu: a Caravan of Courage and Hope. Here's the first installment:

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