Mariam is the oldest sister in a Tamashek family from Timbuktu. I have written about Mariam’s family before. I stayed with them in early January, when Timbuktu was a different place. We slept at the base of a dune, a 5 minute walk from a round the clock international music festival. I returned to Bamako on January 16th, on a Sangue bus that traveled the north side of the Niger River. On January 17th, a rebel group took over the town of Menaka, near the border of Niger, and northern Mali hasn’t been the same since.
In this post, I’m not going to focus on the rebellion; the atrocities committed by and against the Malian army; the looting of warehouses, pharmacies and boutiques; the alleged rapes committed by the MNLA; the astronomical number of displaced; the jihadi groups that hijacked the rebellion; the imposition of sharia in a place that will never be receptive to it; or the physical destruction of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage. I just want to share a glimpse of one family’s life since January 17th.
Mariam’s family stayed in Timbuktu when the rebellion broke out. In fact, life went on normally in Timbuktu for a couple of weeks. Then Aguelhok happened. Aguelhok is a town in the Kidal region of north Mali. It was here that bound Malian soldiers had their throats slit by members of Ansar Dine, an Islamist group that was, at that time, working with the MNLA to drive out the Malian army from the north.
When news broke of what happened in Aguelhok, people took to the streets in Bamako. The Malian army appeared to be under-equipped and unprepared to deal with the rebellion in the north. Military wives lead a march to the presidential palace.
Tuaregs throughout the country were being associated with the grim events of Aguelhok. In Bamako and Kati, Tuareg residents were harassed and in some cases, their businesses and homes were attacked. Many fled.
It was at this time that Mariam’s family left Timbuktu. In addition to the rumors going around town about the Malian army (and the local non-Tuareg population) exacting revenge on Tuaregs, there were also rumors that the rebellion would soon be in Timbuktu. Her family did not support the rebellion, but they also feared the Malian army. Not wanting to come into contact with either, they fled, along with many other families. They traveled west, by way of Lere, and eventually made it to the border of Mauritania.
At Fassala, on the Mauritanian side of the border, the UNHCR had set up a refugee camp. Mariam’s family stayed there for several weeks. Food and water rations were limited and the provided tents did little to protect against the oncoming hot season heat, but they did not fear for their safety.
The family kept in contact with friends who had decided to stay in Timbuktu. Those friends reported that Timbuktu was calm and that none of the rumors had been realized. In late March, after hearing more reports of calm in Timbuktu, Mariam and her family left Fassala to return to their home. While they were in transit, Mali’s President was deposed in a coup d’etat.
When they arrived in Timbuktu, there were already rumors that the Malian army had begun to flee. These rumors proved true and it was not long before Timbuktu was entirely in the hands of two rebel groups, AQIM affiliated Ansar Dine and secessionist MNLA. Soon after, food, water, and power shortages began — this, in April, when the hot season is getting close to its peak.
Mariam’s family did not appreciate the fact that Ansar Dine was trying to implement sharia in Timbuktu. Like many others, they were shocked when two teenagers were whipped 100 times each for having a child out of wedlock. But their greater concern was that they would be perceived to be in support of one of the armed groups occupying their town.
Talking to the brother this week, along with his aunt who lives in Niger, it seems that the lighter skinned residents of towns like Timbuktu and Gao are in a very difficult spot right now because no one considers them to be neutral parties. Mariam’s family does not support the MNLA (who have now been driven from Timbuktu and north Mali’s other major towns) nor do they support Ansar Dine, but to many Timbuktu residents they are associated with one of these groups.
So they left Timbuktu, again. This time, they traveled to a small camp of Tuareg families north of Timbuktu. This is where they are today. In the desert. They are getting supplies from traders who are running goods between desert camps and the towns of Timbuktu and Gao. Prices had gone up in Timbuktu, but things are even more expensive en brousse.
They are relying entirely upon help from friends and family. They have no income. They were not (and are not) part of the informal market, which is currently the only business in north Mali. I wired them a bit of money on Tuesday. They have not received it yet, but that’s because I had to send the money to their aunt in Niger (western union and money gram are no longer operating in north Mali) who is coordinating with a trader that travels to Gao. From Gao, a friend of Mariam’s family will deliver the money on its final leg.
Right now, Mariam’s family is not thinking about azawad or sharia or possible scenarios of foreign intervention; they are just trying to survive. They don’t know when they will go back home.
There are a lot of things that upset me about what has happened in Mali this year. Right up there at the top are the various groups that have been speaking on behalf of a population that did not ask to be spoken for. This was never some Arab Spring shit. There was no mass mobilization of people calling for Azawad. There certainly weren’t people calling for sharia.
So here we are. You want to say that things can’t get worse, but those words have been said many times with respect to north Mali since January, and they have been proven false in every instance.