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Saturday, February 02, 2013

Timbuktu Liberated... But Don't Book A Trip Quite Yet

Bassekou et moi à Bamako... better days

Roland and I capped off a month in Mali with a trip to the city that had lured us to the country in the first place: Timbuktu. And it was worth the grueling drive in a jeep over dirt "roads" to get there. We both loved this throwback of a city to ancient times. The city has gone through-- to put it mildly-- some pretty hard times, first at the hands of barbaric Tuareg slavers and then at the hands of just as barbaric Islamic religious freaks, since we were there. Now the town has been, let's say liberated by the Malian Army and their French allies. But I wouldn't book a flight in yet-- even if there are already sparks, miraculously, of a tourist industry revitalizing. Today the President of France, François Hollande is visiting the city, although I doubt he'll be staying in any hotels.
The Hotel Colombe in Timbuktu closed its doors at the end of March last year. In Mali's capital Bamako an army mutiny had begun while in the Saharan north, the town of Kidal had fallen to rebels using arms looted in the aftermath of Libya's civil war. The Colombe's energetic manager Mohamed Toure thought the death knell had sounded for tourism in Mali.

With no money coming in, he was reduced to one meal a day. "I didn't think I would ever see another European again." He was proven wrong this week as the jihadis fled in advance of the French troops in Mali's fabled city. Now Mr Toure's crumbling hotel is back in business. After one of the darkest years in its long history Timbuktu is coming back to life.

The artisans' market, a hive of weavers, tailors and jewellers, has reopened. Ben Ali, a jeweller, was already back working on a silver ring. Most of his business came from the traditional ceremonies that punctuate Malian life. He pointed to an ornate silver headdress in the display box behind him: "They stopped our women from wearing traditional jewellery," he said. "This is nonsense, they just came in with their sharia. These guys knew nothing about religion, they're just gangsters."

DJ Ali Biko was also back in action across the street. A young looking 19-year-old, his speakers had come out of hiding to blare reggae through the market area. "When the Islamists were here I was really stressed," he said. "We couldn't listen to music."

Me & Mohammed in downtown Timbuktu

He chose to play music in this store because it had belonged to Arab traders, whom locals accused of backing the al-Qa'ida affiliates who occupied Timbuktu. With Malian rapper Milles Mots at full blast, Ali joked that seeing his friends dance in the looted wreck of the store was his revenge.

Me and Mohammed again-- still downtown Timbuktu
Such small acts of defiance are visible everywhere in a city that was famed before last year for its diversity. In the warren of stalls behind the artisan market, Abou Bakry Moussa was selling things he wouldn't have dared to display one week before. Obama belts featuring the stars and stripes and a grinning American President are outselling Chelsea hats and Real Madrid socks. "We had hidden them before," he said. "People had to ask for them." Upstairs, Radio al-Farouk has become the first station in northern Mali to go back on air. The DJ, in clear defiance of the jihadis who ruled the city until last week, relaunched by playing tracks from the legendary Malian musician Ali Farka Touré. The station should be back in full operation within a month. Four days after the first French soldiers swept into the city, cigarettes and alcohol have also made a comeback.
Alcohol is back too and the airport was captured by the French. Obviously it's working well enough for Hollande to have flown in today. When we were there there were two airlines, Air Mali and Air Timbuktu, flying ancient prop planes from to Bamako via Mopti. Leaving Timbuktu, I flew on one and Roland flew on the other and they both left at the same time. I recall them disarming a tribesman when he boarded but giving him back his sword once the plane took off. Air Mali is grounded until September and Air Timbuktu is out of business entirely. Today Hollande's plane flew from France to Sevare. The NY Times reports that "life is certainly a long way from returning to normal. Shops owned by Arab tradesmen have been looted. Some residents have fled, a foretaste of ethnic strife that many fear will roil Mali for years to come. Electricity and running water are available only a few hours a day. The cellphone network remains down."
Many of the residents who left-- first to escape the occupation, then to escape the French airstrikes-- have no way to return. Always remote, the city remains dangerously isolated: the dusty tracks and rivers leading here wind through forbidding scrubland territory that could still provide refuge for the Islamist fighters who melted away from the cities.

Those who remained told stories of how they survived the long occupation: by hiding away treasured manuscripts and amulets forbidden by the Islamists, burying crates of beer in the desert, standing by as the tombs of saints they venerated were reduced to rubble, silencing their radios to the city’s famous but now forbidden music.

“They tried to take away everything that made Timbuktu Timbuktu,” said Mahalmoudou Tandina, a marabout, or Islamic preacher, whose ancestors first settled in Timbuktu from Morocco in the 13th century. “They almost succeeded.”

The occupation of Timbuktu, a center of learning for centuries, was the latest in a long historical list of conquests-- by Arab nations, by the Songhai and Maasina empires, by France. Once again, powerful global forces were in play in this fabled city: a network of Islamic extremists, the armies of France and West Africa, and to a lesser extent the United States, which has flown in French forces and refueled French warplanes during the campaign.

Through it all, the city’s residents, whose ancestors endured such ravages for the better part of a millennium, have adapted as best they could.

On April 1, the day rebels arrived in this city, Mr. Tandina had just returned from the first, predawn prayer of the day. He made bittersweet tea to the murmur of a French radio broadcast. The news was bad: Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, had fallen to Tuareg rebels, the nomadic fighters who had been battling the Malian state for decades.

His hometown was almost certainly their next target. When shots rang out in Independence Square, just behind Mr. Tandina’s house, he knew that Timbuktu’s latest conquerors had arrived.

“The barbarians were at our gate,” he said with a sigh. “And not for the first time.”

The Tuareg fighters took control of the city, and for two days they looted its sprawling markets, raped women, stole cars and killed anyone who stood in their way.

“Then the man with the big beard came,” Mr. Tandina said.

Barrel-chested and dressed in a blue tunic, the leader of Ansar Dine, an Islamist group with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, arrived with several truckloads of fighters. The new rebels called the city’s people to a public square and made an announcement.

“They said, ‘We are Muslims. We came here to impose Shariah,’” Mr. Tandina said.

At first, Timbuktu’s people were relieved, he said. Beginning a hearts-and-minds campaign, the group garrisoned the fearsome Tuareg nationalists outside of town, which stopped the raping and pillaging.

They did not charge for electricity or collect taxes. Commerce went on more or less as usual, he said.

Then a mysterious group of visitors came from Gao, heavily armed men riding in pickup trucks, trailing desert dust.

“They told us they were here to establish an Islamic republic,” Mr. Tandina said.

It started with the women. If they showed their faces in the market they would be whipped. The local men grew angry at attacks on their wives, so they organized a march to the headquarters of the Islamic police, who had installed themselves in a bank branch. The Islamists greeted the protesters by shooting in the air. Many fled, but a small group, including Mr. Tandina, insisted that they be heard.

A young, bearded man came out to meet them. Much to Mr. Tandina’s surprise, he recognized the Islamic police official. His name was Hassan Ag, and before the fighting began he had been a lab technician at the local hospital.

“When I knew him he was cleanshaven, and he wore ordinary clothes of a bureaucrat,” Mr. Tandina said.

Now he was dressed in the uniform of the Islamist rebellion: a tunic, loose trousers cut well above the ankle, in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad, and a machine gun slung across his shoulder.

“I told him our women were being harmed,” he said.

Mr. Ag was unmoved.

“This is Islamic law,” he said, according to Mr. Tandina. “There is nothing I can do. And the worst is yet to come.”

Soon it came. They began destroying tombs of the saints venerated by Timbuktu’s Muslims. Armed with pickaxes and sledgehammers, they reduced to rubble the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud, a saint who, according to legend, protected the city from invaders.

Venerating saints, an ancient practice here, was considered un-Islamic in the austere version of the faith proclaimed by the occupiers.

Mr. Tandina said he tried to use his decades of Koranic education to argue with the Islamists, citing verses about respecting the burial places. They would not listen.

Before long, he said, amputations started. Then came the executions. Again he said he tried to intervene, going to the Islamic court with stacks of Islamic law books under his arm.

“Islam was whatever they said it was,” he said. “They did not respect the holy book. They respected nothing but their own desires.”

For hundreds of years, Timbuktu was one of the world’s most important centers of Islamic learning. The city has dozens of mosques, and it is famous for the ancient, handwritten manuscripts that city residents have collected for generations, preserving them against waves of invaders and creating a priceless trove of knowledge about the Islamic world and beyond. Many families have long traditions of Islamic learning, passed from father to son.

So many here bristled when the Islamists called the population to lecture them about the proper practice of the religion in which they had been raised.

“What they call Islam is not what we know is Islam,” said Dramane Cissé, the 78-year-old imam at one of the city’s biggest and oldest mosques. “They are arrogant bullies who use religion as a veil for their true desires.”

But like many Muslims here, he hid away his amulets, prayer beads and other banned religious items. In his mind his faith remained the same.
How soon before Timbuktu's famous Festival au Désert is back in business? Well... no time at all! They're kind of sponsoring a desert caravan of artists this year-- a Peace and Unity event-- with concerts in Morocco, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Burkana Faso. The Islamists sacked the regular site of the Festival, destroying the water systems, looting the generators and electrical equipment, and "crushing all that had appealed to the promotion of culture and tourism." So this year-- starting February 7 in Bamako, the Caravan of Artists for Peace and National Unity heads off to Kobeni in Mauritania on the road to Nouakchott (the capital) and play two nights of concerts, February 8 and 9 sponsored by the Al Hawa Cultural Foundation of Mauritania. They'll partner with the Festival on the Niger in Ségou on February 14 and two days later at the Festival of Mali in Bamako. A second caravan will leave Tamanrasset, Algeria and travel through the Tuareg heartland to Niamey, Niger and on to Burkina-Faso and the two caravans will hook up in Oursi 350 kilometers from the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou for the Festival in the Desert 2013 (on February 20, 21 and 22). The last stop in at the Festival International of Sélingue in Mali on March 1, 2 and 3. The artists participating are primarily Malian, although the Festival's press release says other international artists will also play to show their solidarity. None have been named yet and I suspect Robert Plant and Bono won't be making it this year.

Unesco has pledged to help rebuild Timbuktu's destroyed cultural heritage. My friend Sophie runs an awesome hotel in Djenne, Djenne Djenno, which is-- amazingly-- still open. She blogs about her life in Mali and it's a great place to check out what's really going on there.

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