Timbuktu sounds dramatically different these days than it did a year ago, when religious extremists exercised terror, beating women and girls who ventured out of the house without completely covering themselves, chastising men who wore their pants too long, smashing any machine that made music, burning books of science and faith that dated back centuries to when the desert city was a center of trade and academic investigation. It was quieter, certainly, when the jihadis ruled Timbuktu, but it was the silence of oppression and fear. Today, joyful noise has returned to Timbuktu, whether it’s the sound of girls singing and dancing in the mud gray streets, or boys playing football in the desert sand.
Timbuktu is in the north of the West African nation of Mali, and I went there to cover the humanitarian and political crisis that has developed in the last 18 months. In a nutshell, here’s what happened. Taking advantage of a moment of weakness in the central government in Bamako, Tuareg separatists in the north of the country, who’ve been fighting for an independent state for years, decided at the beginning of 2012 to take over a big chunk of territory, including the cities of Gao and Timbuktu. To accomplish that, they got help from some Arab jihadi groups that operate in West Africa, groups with names like the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Yet after the military victory, the jihadis pushed the Tuareg separatists out of most areas and declared an independent state ruled by their interpretation of sharia law. No other country recognized them, however, and the Malian army couldn’t budge them, so early this year when the jihadis started to march southward toward the capital and other large cities, the French–former colonial masters in Mali–decided to intervene militarily. That did the trick, and they chased the jihadis north into the desert. The French, for a moment, were heroes, while the Islamists licked their wounds and continued to cause isolated problems, morphing their struggle into a classic asymmetrical war.
The French still continue to chase after them, though France says its 4,000 troops in Mali will soon be reduced to 1,000. Whether that happens or not is anyone’s guess, since entering wars is relatively simple compared to leaving them–something my own government can’t seem to learn. A group of over 12,000 West African soldiers and police, already in the country as part of a regional force to confront the Islamists, changed the color of their hats to UN blue on July 1, becoming an official peacekeeping force. But there’s not much peace to keep.
Elections are currently scheduled for July 28, but they’re being hurriedly pushed by western powers who seem to believe that a bad election is better than no election, and that whoever is elected president in an imperfect vote will be better than the interim president they’ve had since shortly after a coup that came on the heels of the takeover of the north.
Meanwhile, more than half a million people remain either displaced internally or living in refugee camps in Mauritania and other nearby countries. They’d like to go home, but no one can yet guarantee they’ll be safe and secure in the north.
I dropped into Mali for two weeks in order to interview people affected by the conflict. From those interview notes, profound writing is slowly emerging. But, as usual, doing the field work is much more fun than sitting in front of the computer every day turning hours and hours of interviews into clear and insightful prose. Yet I try. Fortunately I also take photos, for when words fail they can convey some of the reality in which people live. And in the fabled city of Timbuktu, there are many reminders of how harsh that reality has been.
For example, here’s an image of 22-year old Maman Dedeou, who had his right hand amputated by the jihadis, allegedly because he stole a mattress. But it’s more complicated than that. Dedeou told me he had a friend who was a jihadi, and when the jihadis entered Timbuktu they looted government offices, banks and many businesses. Each jihadi got a share of the loot, and Dedeou’s friend decided to store some of his loot with him. Then he left town. When he didn’t return after a while, Dedeou, whose family was having a hard time, decided to sell some of the loot, including a mattress. Bad move. Shortly thereafter, the jihadi came back, having switched his allegiance to a different jihadi group (these guys will easily switch teams if they find a higher bidder for their services). When he discovered what Dedeou had done, he had him thrown in jail. In an enterprise the Mafia would have admired, the jihadis demanded that Dedeou’s family pay fines, in theory to eventually get him released. Every week there was a new fine, and the amounts kept growing. After several weeks, the family simply couldn’t pay anymore. So then the Islamists cut off Dedeou’s hand. He fled to Bamako for treatment, and didn’t return to Timbuktu until April, several weeks after it was liberated by the French. He’s currently looking for work.
The residents of Timbuktu resisted jihadi rule in a variety of ways, and one of the articles I’m writing will focus on that. An element of this I found fascinating was the surreptitious removal of thousands of ancient manuscripts from the city. Many of these date from centuries ago, when the city was a center of intellectual inquiry in the Islamic world, and the tolerance and curiosity the old documents manifest are not compatible with the jihadis’ world view. So when the jihadis started burning them, the people of Timbuktu started smuggling them out, often–in a plot worthy of a feature movie–in metal boxes hidden under loads of vegetables on trucks. They ended up in Bamako, the nation’s capital, where the tropical humidity will soon destroy the documents if they aren’t properly preserved or returned to the dry heat of Timbuktu. While I was in Timbuktu, I photographed a small stash of these ancient documents which were hidden deep in the recesses of a cultural center. While the jihadis burned manuscripts they found elsewhere in the center, they never entered the locked basement room at the end of a dark hallway.
While Timbuktu is a complicated place in many ways, one thing that everyone agrees on was that Muslims and Christians had gotten along just fine before the Islamists rode into town on their technicals–the Toyota pickups converted into mobile machine gun platforms. Although Christians were perhaps only 1 percent of the population, there was apparently no animosity with their largely Sufi Muslim neighbors. Even the Tuareg uprisings of recent years hadn’t troubled that relationship. A Baptist pastor from Timbuktu, who I interviewed in Bamako, told me how each side of the religious divide had always invited their neighbors to religious events. So Christians would go to Ramadan fiests and Muslims would attend evangelical campaigns. But when the jihadis showed up, the Christians fled.
A few people who fled Timbuktu have already returned, but their numbers are small, in part because life is hard. Some of the people I interviewed about their experience of flight, refuge and return include Aissata Kantao, who here gets her hair styled by her 8-year old daughter Mariam. She’s looking for work. And Ali Ould Bruye is a tailor who fled Timbuktu. He and his family returned in May, but there’s not much work as there’s not much money circulating. The banks are closed, as are many of the town’s shops that were owned by lighter-skinned Arabs, most of whom fled Timbuktu when the French arrived, fearful of possible reprisals from darker-skinned Malians. Few government offices have reopened, and even the camels that were once ubiquitous in Timbuktu are nowhere to be seen. The jihadis ate so many (full disclosure: camel stew is delicious) that camel herders decided to move away, and they’re not yet convinced it’s safe enough to return. So the few people who have returned, like Kantao and Bruye, wait for better times.
The town is still considered too insecure for most refugees to think of returning. Indeed, the jihadis aren’t far. The soldiers who guard the city have good reason to be nervous. Military checkpoints surround the city, as passing through them involves getting out of the vehicle, walking a bit, then lifting up your shirt and turning slowly around to prove that there are no explosives strapped to your chest.
Despite all these challenges, Timbuktu is a lively place. Here children run through the street, en route to homes where families give away sweets early on Friday mornings. Then a boy harvests clean sand that he sells in the city center for construction.
Timbuktu’s social stratification is complicated. It was once a slave trading center, and although Mali outlawed slavery in 1960, the practice has continued to exist, although with more nuanced terms. Jihadi rule had effects on these relationships that observers are still analyzing. Here’s an image of two women from two classes, walking together along a street in Timbuktu. The woman on the left is a member of the Bella ethnic group, who often work as servants to other dominant ethnic groups–a relationship that many activists claim still amounts to slavery.
The schools in Timbuktu were at first closed during jihadi rule, but under pressure from the community they were eventually allowed to open, though with complete segregation of the sexes. Today kids are back in school learning together. (One effect of banks remaining closed is that teachers in government schools are paid by check, but there’s no place to cash it. So they send their checks with someone, often a bus driver, who’s going to Mopti or some other city a couple of days away. They cash the check and send the money back. Everyone involved takes their cut, however, so the teachers lose a significant chunk of their already meager pay.)
This boy is studying in a religious academy where the Koran is learned by the copying by hand of extended passages. And then there’s an image of some school moms. Ghaichatou Dicko (right), Aichatou Boiny (left) and Fadimoutou Dicko are preparing food for the children at a school in the city.
As troubled as the city is, life goes on, whether its baking bread early in the morning or simply getting to market.
While I encountered the woman on the donkey by accident (I was walking with my translator through the narrow streets on our way to an interview), at another moment when I wasn’t in a hurry (it was early in the morning) I decided to stop at the end of a short street, nothing special about it other than that it seemed very typical for the city, and just wait to see who passed. I like the monocolor environment that makes a good background for the slash of color that some people brought to the street. I spent about half an hour just standing there and shot a couple hundred images, of which I ended up processing about eight. Here’s a sampler.
In addition to Timbuktu, I visited some other areas of Mali. In Gao, which has been transformed into a garrison for the French troops, my small United Nations plane parked for a few minutes amid the aerial war machines. I wasn’t allowed to leave the plane to photograph, so had to shoot through the dirty window (and even for that I got in trouble). I love this picture of French troops boarding a plane to seek out the remaining terrorists. Notice the guy checking out the woman’s butt. After all, these are French troops . . .
Given a tradition of hospitality in the country and the quickness with which the displacement occurred, most internally displaced families settled with relatives or friends in the south, which creates a troubling challenge for aid groups. Assistance is much more easily delivered to populations living in centralized camps. I did visit a couple of camps, including this one on the edges of Mopti.
In Bamako, I visited a small camp in a Catholic training center in Niamana on the outskirts of the capital. In the second image, 3-year old Naomi Wallet Tafaki and her 21-year old sister Monique Kone look at an album of family photographs–images of people they left behind when they fled the north.
In Bamako I also visited some families that were living in rented or loaned accommodations. The hands are those of a bunch of children whose families have crowded into one Bamako house. And the family eating together includes Fadimata Aicha, second from right, who is wearing a dress with a picture of Francois Hollande, the president of France, on the front. Although the enthusiasm is waning as time goes on, in the wake of the French invasion many newborn children were named Hollande in his honor.
In Segou, I spent some time interviewing and photographing Aramatou Maiga, who had been displaced from her home town of Gao and was living in a crowded one-room “house” with 18 kids–six of her own and the rest lent by relatives and friends. As she winnowed grain, two of her daughters played nearby with a mobile phone. After some 30 minutes of photographing Maiga and her family, my translator and I prepared to leave, but the girls then thought that turnabout was fair play.