A week in the City of Saints
A week in Timbuktu.
A good portion of my visit in Timbuktu was spent working on a story that is still currently exclusive, and will be for some time. So there are large chunks of this story missing, but I did my best to work around it and paint a picture of the way I spent the majority of my time in Timbuktu.
W e arrived in Timbuktu early in the morning, just as the sun began to creep over the rooftops. We were, all of us, travel weary and beaten down. Despite our arrival and the excitement of the trip coming to and end, everyone’s spirits were dampened by the inevitable hour wait for the bus crew to unload the luggage from the top of the bus.
A mix of friends, neighbors, and onlookers gathered around, curious to see what the first bus in weeks had brought with it. A few military officers milled about the crowd, doing their best to look important.
I snapped pictures as we stood around, trying to get my bearings. Signs of the occupation were everywhere. A bank sign covered in Jihadist graffiti, the graffiti subsequently covered in black paint. The stripped shell of another bank, transformed into the Islamic Police headquarters during the occupation, “Police” scrawled hastily in black letters below a window.
After a while a man approached, greeted Fatima and the kids with a few handshakes, and began loading their luggage into a push cart. It turned out it was, Fatima’s husband, Omar. Malians couples generally aren’t affectionate towards each other in public, but it still took me by surprise that, after being separated for so long, there was so little love expressed.
As we set out into the interior of the city, it immediately struck me how empty it was. We traveled entire streets without a single shop open; nearly every door and window was shut. The city was eerily quiet, and we didn’t see a soul until our path crossed a major avenue. Eventually we came to Fatima’s home, a nondescript door tucked behind some Islamic libraries deep in the city center.
There I was properly introduced to Omar, tea was started, and we began chatting. Fatima, however, got to work. Home for mere minutes, she dutifully got out the charcoal and began cooking breakfast for the family. Gone from home for 8 months, fresh off 3 days of rough travel, and as soon as she gets home she begins cook. No rest, no respite. A true Mali muso. As we sat and ate, the kids poked around their home, opening boxes and attempting to locate where the various pieces of their lives had been packed away in their absence.
After a few minutes, a man named Ali Baba arrived. He was a friend of Ali Toure’s, who had sent him around to look after me. Over the next week Ali Baba would become a good friend. He took me in like family, looked after my safety, and sticking his neck out where other fixers refused to work.
Fixer: Usually a local, a fixer acts as as a combination translator, cultural facilitator, bribe-reducer, and all-around-get-stuff-done guy. They are the unsung heroes of the journalism, and without them reliable international correspondence would be impossible.
I checked in to my hotel in the afternoon, where I met the Associated Press’ West Africa Bureau Chief – the only other westerner there. Later on in the week I would help her on a story, but that’s a blog post for a later date. I spent that evening at Fatima’s, wrapping up my time with the family.
I mentioned earlier that the city felt abandoned. There were people in the town, but it seemed like nine out of every ten doors were closed and locked, and everything but the main drag through town felt deserted. Ali Baba explained to me over coffe that the shop owners, mostly Arab and Tuareg (white), had fled the city for fear of reprisals. With them went the economy, and now everything in the city cost twice as much.
The white exodus from Timbuktu had been reported on in the months prior, but what that reporting didn’t correctly express is the fact that they are almost entirely gone from Timbuktu proper. The effect is hard to describe without seeing it in person. As far as anyone knew, there were only 2-3 Arab families left in the city. I decided then, that I would spend my remaining week tracking down and speaking with them.
O ur days took on the following format: Ali Baba and I would meet at his house each morning, where we’d have a breakfast of Coffee and Taguella. We’d work until lunch time, when the rising temperatures made working impossible. Each day we conducted interviews, set up portraits, and re-visited people for followup interviews in the afternoon. In the evenings I would join Ali Baba and his family for dinner, tea, and slightly out of date American pop music. I would then retreat to my hotel for a precious few hours of electricity. I was lucky – my hotel was one of a few select places with power for a few hours every night. The rest of the city only got it once every 3 nights.
We repeated this process for most of the week, and eventually I had put together portraits and profiles of the last 3 remaining Arab men in the city. The interviews were crushing. Each man told the story of watching of their city erode before their eyes, of watching their life’s work dissolved and their family and neighbors driven off. First by the Islamists, then by the Malian army. They spoke of Timbuktu in the past tense. It had become a city they used to know, a city once renowned for mixing cultures and religions, now known as a place of fear and uncertainty.
What became apparent to me by weeks end, was that Timbuktu, and Northern Mali in general, is far more separated from Southern Mali than most people realize. And, more worryingly, that gap isn’t shrinking– it’s widening. With little governance, failing infrastructure, and a collapsed economy, the people of Timbuktu have nothing to do but sit in their city and simmer – a situation that needs to be rectified sooner rather than later, if Mali wants to avoid this whole situation repeating in 5 years time.
S till, there were moments of beauty on my trip. I’ll never forget lounging on Ali Baba’s roof while barbecuing camel steaks and watching the sun set over the city, or hearing the legends of the saint Ahmed Baba as told by one of the oldest men in the city. The people I met there were as incredible as anyone I’ve met in Mali so far, and if I could afford it I would spend weeks in the city. There’s a lot of stories to tell– stories much deeper than a few thousand burned manuscripts or some some amputated limbs.
Eventually, my time in Timbuktu had to come to a close. 8 days after I arrived, I caught a car to Sevarae, and a bus to Bamako from there. The trip took 24 hours, and was much easier than the trip up. I am glad to be back, but there is a part of me that desperately wants to return to Timbuktu. So many stories left to tell in such an amazing place. I know I haven’t even scratched the surface.