Fits and a Start
Second verse, not at all the same as the first.
I don’t even know where to begin. The past 5 days since I returned to Mali have been an absolute blur. They’ve been mentally and physically exhausting, emotionally draining, and more rewarding that I’d ever thought possible.
Since I stepped off the plane in Bamako last Wednesday, I have chased French President Francois Hollande’s motorcade, scoured the city for refugees, met one of my heroes, re-connected with people I consider family, made new friends, and have generally had the time of my life. Things look like they’re quieting down now, so I’m taking this opportunity to write the first blog post of my second go-round in this country that I love so much.
THE FIRST 2 DAYS
W hen I left the states, Mali was in a stalemate with Islamic extremists in the north, as it had been for months. When I landed in Bamako, French forces were wrapping up a blitzkrieg-campaign that had secured the 3 major cities that had previously been occupied by Islamic extremists, The country was (and still is) teeming with journalists, and a lot of the stories I had hoped to cover had come and gone.
I had been in touch with the Associated Press for a long time, but they didn’t need any photographers at the moment — there had been ample time for others to fill those positions. More than a little dejected, I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself. So I just started doing…things.
I had not officially worked for the AP yet, so I listed myself as freelance. I ended up getting credentialed as “THOMAS MARTINZ: ATTN”. As in, the first line of the request: ATTN: Ministère de la Communication. Oh, Mali.
The rest of the day was spent trying to find the UNESCO and the UNHCR offices in Bamako. This involved a lot of walking around the ACI-2000 district asking random Malians for directions, but eventually we found our way to UNESCO, which led us to the UN Headquarters. From there a UN driver took pity on us an drove us to the UNHCR.
We asked if we could speak to the press attache, and after a few minutes we were led into the office of none other than Hèléne Caux. Hèléne is a fantastic photographer and humanitarian, and personal photo-hero of mine. Her work has been featured by National Geographic, among others. Helene works double-duty as photographer and information officer for the UNHCR. If I could have a career that has a fraction of the impact hers has, I’ll be a happy man.
Damon interviewed Hèléne about refugees in Mali, and when he was done I chatted her up about a portrait series I wanted to start focusing on displaced Malians. I mentioned I was just tracking down leads until my lost baggage arrived (note: if you bring all your critical gear as carry-on, make sure it has batteries in it) and without hesitation she loaned me a spare battery. That battery would save my hide in 2 days time.
After our meeting with Hèléne, we headed to Daodabougou, a neighborhood in the city not far from the camel. With about half an hour of light left in the day, I struck up a conversation with a group of men finishing their evening prayers. As soon as I explained what we were doing, one of the men told us he knew a guy who worked with an organization that was working with refugees in the city, and that he could probably locate some for us. A few phone calls later and we were set to meet the next afternoon with someone from the Mayor’s office of Korofina (another neighborhood in Bamako).
T he next afternoon, Damon and I took a taxi to Korofina to meet our contact, a short, animated man responsible for keeping track of refugees from the north living in his neighborhood. A taxi ride and a walk down some side streets later, Damon and I were sitting and talking with Afiata Guindo, a single mother from Niafounke who fled the city with her 8 children: some hers, some adopted. Her story is heartbreaking, but sadly commonplace. 80% of all displaced peoples are women and children — and in a country like Mali, these are the people most at risk.
Afiata showed us her living quarters: a tiny, single room that she shares with her entire family. 9 people in a room no larger than a shack. On the floor slept her youngest child, Eli Diallo. What I saw was striking, and it led me to the first image in what has become a portrait series on displaced people in Mali:
After meeting Afiata, we set up a time when I could photograph her and her family the next day. At this point, I got a call from an editor I had been in contact with at the Associated Press. It was 4:00p.m. They heard the French President would be landing in Bamako that evening. They weren’t sure when, and they couldn’t get me credentials, but they wanted me to cover it if possible.
My first assignment for AP ever, and it’s the French president, with no time, no information, and no credentials. Oh, shit.