40-8 Timbuktu Monument_1024x680SYNOPSIS:  About some victims of the Islamist/Jihadist Occupation in Mali.  About people and shrines.  About questionable news or at least some doubts.  About fear.

For three nights she was raped in turn by up to 6 men each time – her story could not be more horrific!  12 other women were also imprisoned in the former BMS bank which became the makeshift prison of the Islamists 8-10 months ago.  If your husband or any relative had the ransom the occupiers demanded for the “crime” these women were accused of – not being properly covered in public – you could be bought out of this hell.  But Bintu Toure’s husband was out of town and it took her mother three days to scrape together the sum needed.   This is the story I was told.  It is a story which I had heard in similar form through international news as the 15 months of the occupation of Mali occurred 2012/2013.

Banja had offered to take me to Bintu’s house to hear the story from her, myself.  I felt strange about that but was also intrigued.   In turn, I was to give Bintu money to support her and her family.  Bintu is only 25 years old.  At the age of 13 she was married to a man whose age she does not know.  I caught a glimpse of him and would estimate him to be around 45.  Marriage was the end of schooling for her, and now 12 years later, she has 5 children and is pregnant again as of 3 months ago.  Her imprisonment and rape ordeal lie about 8 months back.

Either Bintu is still completely traumatized, or she is stoic by nature, or she has told the story too many times.  Or, could there be something else not quite right about this?  Banja barely introduced me to Bintu as if he goes there every day to talk to her about this ordeal.  He then talked almost the entire time himself – that means, he told me her story in English – a language she does not understand and something he could have done without her being present.  I finally got him off his narrative and asked Binto a few personal questions which he actually had to translate.  I asked her about her schooling, about her dreams in life, was she happy to have another child, and about her husband – to see how she would answer.  That is still to say that I had to assume that Banja was actually translating.    But at least I could see her reacting to the questions and talking herself.  She has a beautiful, slightly roundish, innocent face.  She did not look at me much and for the picture she allowed me to take of her, she completely covered up to the point of not even being able to look out from under her scarf, understandably.  But at the same time, Banja gave me her name.  Is it her real name?

According to Bintu and Banja, many of the women whose fate she shares have by now been divorced by their husbands.   The shame associated with these events for the husband and the family is just too much.  Interestingly enough, neither of them mentioned the shame of these events for the actual victims.  None of the women received much if any medical care and certainly none of them was treated with psychological help.  Bintu is lucky as her husband has not left her and her parents stood by her strongly.  Strangely enough, she has no dream for herself, at least none she could formulate on the spot when I asked her.  She has her kids and her family here in Timbuktu; that’s where she wants to be.  And she wants to sell clothes.  Apparently, she likes to sew.

I shared a very personal story with her in return which drew much more of a reaction from Banja and almost none from her.  Ultimately, it all seemed to be about money.  Banja had asked for a large sum which I just could not spare; I gave her half.    As much as I want to believe that I spoke to a victim of the occupation, I am not sure I did.  But I am sure that if I wanted to believe anything – Banja offered to take me to some of the other women – and certainly if I wanted to sensationalize anything, or if I were a journalist actively looking, stories like this even more so would flood my way.   Most likely they are true in principle.  But are they the truth in the specific cases?

That notorious BMS bank was located across a small vendor’s place, the only one in town who sells Dogon masks, doors, animist sculptures, and the like – stuff you see all over in Dogon Country and the artisans market in Bamako.  But you rarely find it out here in the North of Mali which is inhabited by the Songhai, Bella, Tuareg and a few other ethnic groups.   The store caught the attention of the occupiers and they ransacked it for the items that were deemed un-Islamic.  This is the story I had already heard from Aso, the boy in Segou who had breakfast with me.  He in fact, told me to send greetings to the owner of the store for whom he used to work to let him know he was well.  He had left Timbuktu in search of work elsewhere.

Banja told me the same story and offered to call the owner Madu Sekare, to open up his shop for me.  Madu had in the meantime rebuilt a lot of his shelves, and stacked them with what was left of his merchandise.  If I had not been told that the store had been ransacked I could not have told from the looks today.   It was a store as dusty as they are everywhere filled with touristy items of which I bought a couple at very inflated prices, again encouraged by Banja, to help the owner who had been victimized by the occupation.

I don’t mind spending money or even overpaying even though buying souvenirs is not exactly the main point of this visit.  I already know that I will spend all the money I brought one way or another.   I prefer to spend smaller sums on a larger number of people rather than larger sums on just one or two – but ultimately it makes no difference to me.  Again, Banja talked most of the time and cheerful Madu just provided a few sentences here and there. There was not much to it: after the occupiers had settled in the bank across the shop, they just came one day and vandalized the shop.   Now they are gone.  The shop is back up and running but there is nobody left to buy.

According to Banja, for Timbuktu it all started one day early in the morning of April 1, 2012, when the population woke up to lots of gunshots fired into the air and hundreds of vehicles of armed men driving through town shouting “This is our town.”  These were the Tuaregs claiming territory in the North.  A few weeks later they were joined by more cars of foreign soldiers who drove into town, fired lots of gunshots and shouted “Allahuakbar”.

These are strange bedfellows:  The Tuaregs are Malians, they love music, dancing, and at heart are probably not much different from all the other Malians I have met.  They are lighter-skinned, and often accused by the rest of the Malians of racism.  And they generally feel disenchanted and let down by a government they feel does nothing for them.  And there are the jihadists, the second group that poured in.  They are Islamic purists who will not even allow cigarette smoking, who banned music, closed schools, terrorized women for not dressing properly, who chopped off hands and flogged people publicly for all sorts of drummed up un-Islamic crimes for which they applied strict Sharia law.

There was no fighting in Timbuktu, nobody got killed; the locals were unarmed.  Resistance would have been futile.  There was just a swift “takeover”.  And ultimately there was only one choice: cope as best as possible.  The locals saw it coming since Goa and Kidal were taken the same way just days earlier but little could be done.  Anyone who had the means to do so had left town already.   Especially Christians and government workers fled almost entirely.    There are a couple of churches in town and a Christian cemetery, but according to Banja there is no Christian left to talk to, and the cemetery boards the military camp now and therefore is off limits.  Property and cars of government officials were vandalized by the occupiers and the corpses of burned out cars can still be seen around town.  Slowly, some government officials are returning.   The Christians seem to be more reluctant.   Displaced persons, internally and across Africa is a huge problem.  Many of the people who fled are now stranded with no food and no means to return even if they wanted to.  And if they came, what would they find: no work, poverty, NGO handouts…

What I had been particularly interested in due to my background was the fate of the nearly 300 shrines that the UNESCO lists in conjunction with Timbuktu’s three protected mosques.   There are dozens of cemeteries in Timbuktu and the town was known for its shrines of “saints” or holy men.  Islam does not know saints per se, but Timbuktu was a town of scholars and jurisprudents of Islam who had made a name for themselves over many centuries.  Their tombs were revered and visited by the population.   The occupiers deemed this to be “cult” or “idol worship” and therefore set out to systematically destroy these burial places.  If I believe Banja and at this point I have no second source, not a single of these tombs in town is left.  Not a single one!  Perhaps, there were some out there in the desert somewhere that got spared?  None in town.  Banja could not think of any.

Muslim cemeteries in Mali are not the most cared for places I have seen.   There is little in terms of marking or upkeep.   The sand takes over, graves are marked by a ceramic pot or a few stones, even the shrines of these revered people most likely were little more than mud-brick cubicles.  Tradition passes on the names and the places of family members or important community personalities.  People just know who is who and where they are buried.  All I saw were mud-piles; lots of them!  Banja said that people still go and revere the spots of these saints now and that the UNESCO is working on an inventory.  Eventually, some of these shrines will be rebuilt by the community, that is if there is international aid to do so.  But these shrines and ultimately the 700-year history associated with them have become victims of this conflict just like Bintu and Madu and all those who fled the area.

Mali at this point, and in particular the North which was directly affected by the war, would be a country in shambles – even more so than it already is, if that is imaginable – were it not for international aid.  With only hours of unreliable electricity every day, without tourism, without internal work in construction or anything worth mentioning, Mali pretty much is “finished” according to Banja.   That of course, makes it so vulnerable for a take-over by these Islamic Jihadists.  A safe haven for jihadists of the size of Mali – about five times the size of Great Britain, is one thing nobody in the western world can afford no matter how far away from here we are.   But the Islamists are just one problem.  The infrastructure is another.  And that Mali was one of the poorest countries even before the war just adds to the problem.  There is no single cause, there is no single cure.   And that makes it all so complicated.

In 1996 there was hope.  The worst seemed over.   The Tuareg Rebellion was over and thousands of people came together in Timbuktu to burn their weapons as a symbolic gesture of lasting peace.   A monument was erected to this event, which got a recent makeover.  Banja and I visited it today.  It seems out of place with its overpowering marble superstructure, but a few of the charred weapons stick out of the concrete and make a point.  Childlike paintings of daily life decorate the circular plaza which is still used for large gatherings and celebrations of independence from colonialism.

Just down the road from it is a small hotel.   Four tourists were kidnapped there only five months ago and are still at large along with five other ones!  Banja pointed out that we were only yards from the edge of the desert and that kidnapping from this hotel was easy for the kidnappers, presumably Tuareg/jihadists who within minutes could disappear into the wilderness.  I won’t be able to see much of the desert – it’s still too dangerous to just go out there now and also too costly for me at this point.  Tourists typically would rent camels or 4WD to do desert excursions, but these trips are now severely restricted.

But I had to think about how easy it would be to kidnap me even though I am in a hotel in the middle of town.  Picture me sleeping on the rooftop of the Buktu Hotel, in the middle of the night – the doors and stairs open for anyone.  Nobody would even see or hear a thing.  It made me pause.

Banja is a Bella, the black version of the lighter Tuaregs.  But both the “white” and the black Tuaregs share a culture and a language.  His assessment of the political situation of Mali goes something like this:

Tuaregs (and by that he means the other type of Tuareg, the light-skinned bad ones, the ones who joined forces with the Islamists and the Tuareg separatists) gained the trust of the Europeans decades ago, who funded numerous costly development projects which were never realized.  But the money was used to arm and train jihadists over time.  As these forces were joined by and infused with the recent “leftover” jihadists from the Arab Spring, especially from Algeria, things kicked into gear and the takeover of the North of Mali started.   Now, the jihadists have been driven back by the French forces and are kept at bay by Burkina Faso, the UN and the Malian army, but they still have this huge influx of potential money by kidnapping Westerners for ransom.  Every dollar paid for these victims will fuel the Jihad and keep this conflict going.  Typically, a Westerner fetches 1 million dollars.  Banja pointed out that one typical misconception about Malians is that they hate Tuaregs.  Far from it, he said.  Timbuktu is full of Tuaregs, but there are the different types.  That has to be taken into consideration.

A side note: when I planned for this trip, I heard that there now is Kidnapping Insurance.  It’s for foreign aid workers, contractors in crisis areas, etc.  I tried to get a policy, but Mali is a county even the kidnapping insurance will not touch!   I guess chances are still too high.

Things are, of course, more complicated than this quick assessment by Banja and I think that we in the West often have access to more news than people right here in the middle of the conflict.  But then, I do wonder about the news as I mentioned above, and here is one more example: slaves.

In news reports at home I had read about slaves who were freed from slavery when some of the local Tuareg/Islamist forces were driven out of Timbuktu.  Banja insists that there never was anything like a slave in the Western sense anywhere in Timbuktu in recent times, in fact not in several generations.  That is not to say that there were not people so poor that they had to work for literally nothing more than food and shelter and that they had to do whatever their employer asked them to.  But in a country where some people live and work for less than $2 per day, food and shelter is not that far off.  In the desert, things may be different.  Is this a case in point of sensationalized language in our news reports?  Is it a case in point of wanting to believe anything as long as it makes for a good news story?  Or is it a case in point of something going on right under the noses of the population that they don’t even know about?

There certainly is a class system here and racial distinctions based on skin color.  Some Tuaregs and Arabs are called “White” here and people refer to them as not liking “Blacks”.  To me this is confusing.  Malians come in varying shades of black and brown, but not white.  To the Malians there are “Whites” here and they do not mean the Tubabum-White I am, but indigenous “white” people.  Either ways, racist sentiments are known, pronounced, and play a role in this conflict as much as oil, politics, the economy, and religion.  But even here on the ground, I realize that there is neither time nor the means for me to figure this all out.  I can only observe some fractions here and there.

Victims of this conflict can be found everywhere, from individual cases like Bintu and Madu to whole groups of people like the government workers and the Christians and the countless name- and face-less refugees from all strata of society.   Banja was known to be one of the most affluent tourist guides in town.  He and his family became refugees and he only just returned to now scrape the money together to bring his mother and father back home.  But as a tourist guide he will have to look far for work.  It’s the same story over and over and over.

I hate it when I succumb to fear.  But I admit that I slept in my locked sweltering hot room last night and not on the roof top.  I do not want to have to say that I presented an easy target for anyone and I certainly do not want to become fuel for this conflict!  Good night.