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The life of one family from Timbuktu since the rebellion

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.

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{ 19 comments… add one }

  • Brendan van Son July 5, 2012, 2:48 pm

    Great post mate,

    While I was in Mauritania, it really seemed like people were cheering for the rebellion and sharia law to take hold, followed by a new state in the North of Mali. As things progress, I can see that happening… but, I can also then see the North trying hard to rid themselves of that type of governing establishment. If you were a betting man, where do things go from here? Also, what is the rest of West Africa doing about this? Are they planning on supporting the Southern-based gov’t or are they kind of just letting things play out?

    Anyways, I’m looking forward to being there chatting this stuff with you in person in a couple months!

    • phil July 5, 2012, 3:03 pm

      Really? They were cheering for both a new state and sharia? MNLA wanted a (secular) new state. Ansar Dine is against a new state but they are for sharia. What kinds of people were saying this?

      I don’t know where things go from here. If there is any sort of military intervention in north Mali it could be very messy. ECOWAS has been holding regular meetings, summits, conferences. A lot of talking. They have supposedly raised an army of over 3,000 troops, but it’s unclear how it will be paid for and what their mission will actually be. Many of the communiques have indicated that their first objective would be to secure the transitional government in Bamako, which could be a separate disaster as there is not support for this in Mali.

      I don’t think there is going to be an independent state in north Mali. It was unlikely to happen even if MNLA assumed control of the region. But overall, I don’t have any answers and like many others, I’m just hoping this will somehow get better.

  • Jean-Pierre Monette July 6, 2012, 3:07 am

    My wife and I collect funds to drill water wells in Mali. We have 10 wells drilled to this day. We plan to drill three more in late december 2012. We are very anxious having to temporarily stop helping the villagers that will be needing our help even more because of the tragedy they are living. We wish for the best for the malien population.

  • Gloria Silva July 6, 2012, 5:42 am

    Hi, The article is superb, straight, and clear. I am portuguese, married to a Northern Malian man, not a Touareg, but a Songhoi, have been many times at is village up in the North. And honestely, do not understand at all, how can there be people supporting an Independent State up North for Touaregs. I havae nothing against Touaregs, like I have nothing against, Songhois, bellas, peules and so on. BUt its pretty clear that they are not the biggest Comunity up NORTH, and then, in 5 years, I have seen and reseen, that all the Etnic Groups are completely mixed…. There is only a very FEW that have kept marrying between themselfs, In 1973, there was HUNGER in the North, and many “Touareg Men” left their families (Wifes and Children); at that time, Government asked mainly the Songhois to take up these women as theirs and marry them (Can we still call the North Racist ?) Well these women were married and had more children…. Can y imagine that now we have what Songhoi/Touareg, peule/Touareg, bella/Touareg ? Or do we just have Malians ? This is one of the reasons that supporters of MNLA are waht 2% of the Northern Mali ? Please… Really what a mess is made out of the North. Nobody is extremist so why the Hell did people think that its Extremist Muslims they want to be nobody asked them.
    I am angry, as in 5 years, being Mali one of the Poorest Countries, Roads had been made in the North, Hospitals and schools, Now we have Skeleton Buildings, that MNLA has destroyed , till this moment I do not understand that a Movement supported by so many Europeans, just attacked the SCHOOLS and the HOSPITALS, is this a MOVEMENT ?
    I just hope for Peace. But to have PEACE to-day, war as to take place…. May God Help Mali !

    • phil July 7, 2012, 11:59 am

      Hey Gloria,
      Thanks for your comment. I am angry and frustrated too, so I can’t imagine how you feel having a direction connection to the region in your husband. Here’s to hoping that things will somehow get better.

  • ryan cummings July 6, 2012, 10:55 am

    Phil, first of all, I am an avid follower of your twitter account and find your various communiques on Mali extremely informative.

    As a political and security analyst for the West African region, my forecast for Mali seems quite grim. Without receiving both logistical and operational support from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), I cant see an ECOWAS contingent of 3,000 soldiers fairing any better against the MNLA than their Malian military. First of all, the MNLA comrpised of an estimated 10,000 well-armed militants who share a relatively similar ideology, culture, language and identity. This homogeneity will be severely lacking among an ECOWAS military contingent which will comprise of combatants emanating from countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. Another issue which needs to be taken into account is that Tuareg combatants are primed at desert warfare, whereas military commanders of the aforementioned countries will likely find the environmental conditions within the Sahel extremely harsh and foreign, placing them at a severe disadvantage. The success of ECOWAS’ planned counterinsurgency operations with northern Mali will be based on several factors such as receiving operational support from Western nations and possibly getting the Algerian military, which is primed at this form of warfare, to lead any counteroffensives within the country. However, given traditional tensions between Algeria and the West, the simultaneous achievement of both of the aforementioned goals may prove to be extremely illusive.

    Furthermore, even if the ECOWAS militray effort was successful in northern Mali, a plan needs to be formulated to counter presence of both Ansar Dine and MUJAO insurgents in northern Mali. The preeminence of these Islamist outfits in northern Mali is probably of greater threat to the short-to-medium security outlook in Mali in comparison to a Tuareg separatist rebellion. As witnessed in Algeria, in addition to countries such as Nigeria, once an Islamist group grasps a foothold, they are extremely difficult to uproot.

    While currently inconceivable, I believe that the best way forward for Mali, in the absence of large-scale international intervention, would be to formulate some cooperative agreement between ECOWAS, the Malian military and the MNLA which will first and foremost be aimed at dismantling the Islamist network in northern Mali. Such cooperation will only likely exist if the MNLA are in turn provided with some form of political autonomy in northern Mali, without splitting the country into two.

    • phil July 7, 2012, 12:05 pm

      Hey Ryan,

      THanks for the comment. I think it is extremely unlikely the MNLA ever had 10,000 fighters. Original estimates were around 2,000 and then those estimates dwindled to less than 1,000. We may never know for sure because they were operating with ansar dine in many of their offensives. In any case, the MNLA has been driven out of all major towns in north Mali after the battle in Gao with mujao.

      I agree that any intervention will likely be a mess. Also, this collaboration you speak of between the MNLA and ecowas may become a reality as there are some reports of it. Personally, I think that could backfire as well as many northern residents were happy to see the MNLA out of their town. MNLA had very little political capital to begin with and they quickly squandered it because of looting and rape allegations and most recently, the assassination of a local council member in Gao. Their media outlets in Paris were always quick to deliver a polished statement, but it’s clear that the situation on the ground was much different.

      I am very worried about a variety of scenarios and unfortunately, I don’t think there is much reason for optimism right now.

  • Holly Webber-Long July 6, 2012, 2:25 pm

    Praying for the people of Mali, and for this family. Thanking God that the beautiful people of Mali be allowed to reside in PEACE in their homes and their country; that an overwhelming flow of financial and practical support (water, food, clothing, shelter..) be continuously en route and received by those in need; that GRACE be supernaturally loosed upon the land.

    How can we help at this time? Has there been any way as yet to generally send support?
    I understand the confusion/turmoil makes this incredibly difficult, but I am certain many would desire to do so.

    • phil July 7, 2012, 12:10 pm

      Thanks for your comment. Providing help is tricky for the moment because of the limited access in the north. One organization that does have access is cri de coeur. You can check them out here: http://www.cridecoeur.org/

  • Didi July 7, 2012, 1:09 pm

    Thank you for your comments and stories. I do wonder whether we can talk about these groups as being so clear-cut. From knowledge and experience in this part of the world I can only say that groups are made of different factions, often fighting against one another. As far as I know there are Songhai men on the ranks of the MNLA and some MNLA men have left to join the ranks of Ansar Dine because they are paid for it whilst MNLA fighters are volunteers. It is most likely that tthere is an awful anount of manipulation of information and even intelligence services are struggling to comprehend what is going on on the ground. The definition of pictures taken by drones is too low to distinguish fighters from civilians. I think that whatever we may think we ought to be very cautious in making hypothesis about what is actualy going on. A question that keeps aunting me these days is why the ATT government has not intervened earlier and let the narco-traffic led by terrorists such as the MUJAO and AQIM escalate to such extremes. The narco-traffic and abductions of western hostages has been going on since 2005. It is easy to find scapegoats but any serious and balanced analysis has to question what are the causes of the tragedy we are witnessing in Northern Mali well before the MNLA started yet another Tuareg rebellion. Unless we have a thorough understanding of the ‘facts’ about narco-traffic and the weapons trade in the Sahara we ought to think carefully about pointing our finger against one or other party. The real tragedy is that people have forgotten the atrocities all parties, including the Malian army, have committed. I am just as worried about the paralysis of the politicians in the interim government in Bamako as I am about the north. And I have to admist I find the immobilism of the Malian government and its corruption just as revulting as the violence in the north. To know that one of ATT’s wife was profiting from the narco-traffic, and that the money the Malian army received from AFRICOM to fight terrorism simply disappeared into villas and various other pockets of Malian army generals, is rather self-explanatory. But the real question is why isn’t anyone talking about it? Until all Malians in the north and the south acknowledge their weakness, corruption and rivalries, there will never be peace. Foreign intervention will continue and stop Mali and Malians from taking their own responsiilities and lives into their own hands. This is a real tragedy.

    • phil July 7, 2012, 2:06 pm

      Many great points and I agree with you in many cases. Nothing here is clear cut and there are serious questions that need to be addressed that go beyond the surface. My post is written largely out of frustration and you are right to call for deeper analysis. In calling out the MNLA and Ansar, I don’t want to make it seem as if I’m ignoring ATT gov corruption or atrocities committed by Malian army. My main point was just that I don’t know of many towns in north Mali that welcomed any of these armed groups as “liberators” (which is the language used by the armed groups). I think you’re right that there needs to be deeper analysis and some major reconciliation efforts.

  • Scott MacMillan July 7, 2012, 4:34 pm

    Thanks for this post.

  • Guy Lankester July 8, 2012, 5:18 pm

    Great post Phil. I know Mariam well! You must have been camping behind my camp at the festival!!
    She is the sister of my Timbuktu operator Mamayiti. He himself has had to flee Timbuktu because Ansar dine were on his case for protecting a French owned hotel. He is now in Burkina.
    I will be putting Mamayiti’s story up on my blog soon: http://www.fromhere2timbuktu.co.uk.

    If you know people who want to help people in Timbuktu or Mali, I am running a Mali Displaced families fund. So far I have sent over €2000 out to people like Mamayiti, in a couple of cases the money may have saved lives.

    People can donate via my blog site http://www.fromhere2timbuktu.co.uk.

    • phil July 9, 2012, 8:28 am

      Hey Guy,
      Yes!!! We stayed with Mamayti’s sister’s family and often saw him as well. Do you have any news of Mohamed? I have been speaking with Zeinabou in Niamey and Jiddou, who is with Mariam, by phone to keep in touch. Thank you for the link, I pray things somehow get better.

  • Marlinde July 11, 2012, 9:15 am

    Hi Phil, thanks for the blog. It is very recognisable. I too stayed for a while with a tuareq family in dec 2011 nearby Timbuktu. Last weekend I transferred money so they could flee to a refugee camp in Mauritanie. They are terrified and scared and I fear things will not get much better in the camp apart from being safe. They are beautiful people who just want to live free as a bird in the great desert taking care of their animals and families. I also feel frustrated and sad and helpless and sincerely hope I can stay in contact and do everything within my power to help.

  • Marlinde July 12, 2012, 4:00 pm

    Thanks for your comment Mika.

  • Rease July 14, 2012, 6:31 pm

    This is a sad story, but I’m glad you told it. It’s so much easier to understand and sympathize with situations across the globe when you read about actual people and how it affects them as individuals, not as a country.

  • Izy Berry - The Wrong Way Home July 15, 2012, 2:59 pm

    Thank you for this insightful and personal story. It’s really sad to hear about what’s going on other countries, news that often doesn’t see the light of day in the media. I hope in the future I can devote some of my traveling time to giving aid, but I wouldn’t know where to start. I’m really glad I found your blog and hope to follow posts in the future.

  • Hanshika July 20, 2012, 3:52 am

    That’s very sad. I respect Mariam and her family. Although, never been there but heard about Mali and natural beauty many times. To know about such sad story out there, is not something quite believable.

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