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March 28, 2013

A Trip Through the Heart of Mali

March 26, 2013

A suicide car bomber hit a checkpoint about 5 miles from Timbuktu, injuring seven Malian soldiers. Five insurgents were killed and one captured. Photo by Yeah Samake

I have been writing about Mali, even before the military coup that took place last March, since my friend Yeah Samake, the mayor of Ouelessebougou, was running for president. The coup destabilized the country, and the elections were called off.  Islamist extremists took advantage of the ensuing lack of governance in the northern region and seized control of the towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. They instituted Sharia law and brutalized the Malian people in these towns and surrounding villages.

There was also an influx of insurgents from countries as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Northern Mali — about the size of France — had become the epicenter for the Islamists in the Sahel. Many of these insurgents were involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

On Jan. 10, Malian President Dioncounda Traore called French President Francois Hollande and asked for military help, since a large group of extremists from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) had moved south and taken over the town of Konna, just 300 miles from Bamako, the capital. The next day French troops and Mirage jets arrived from nearby Chad.

Additional troops also came from several neighboring countries. The Islamists were quickly driven from Konna, and within weeks Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal were liberated. The Islamists were driven into the northern frontier mountain region near the Algerian border, where French and Chadian troops are still seeking out the extremists.

Since I continued to write regularly about Mali, I planned an information trip to the northern region for mid-March. Mr. Samake arranged for me to meet with Mahamadou Alou Toure, the mayor of the town of Bourem Sidi-Amar, located 30 miles from Timbuktu. This is the story of my trip.

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On Monday, March 18, I paid a courtesy call on French Ambassador Christian Rouyer, who was confident the Islamists would be defeated. “The French,” he said, “will stay to finish the job.” Their goal was to drive the Islamists from northern Mali. In addition, the French troops would probably stay beyond the national elections planned for July.

Mr. Rouyer noted that France intended to introduce a resolution to the U.N. Security Council in April, asking to authorize a peacekeeping force in Mali to replace the French and African military coalition. The goal is to transfer peacekeeping responsibilities to a U.N. force of up to 10,000 troops.

At 4 a.m. the next day Mr. Samake and Mr. Toure picked me up for our long drive to Douentza, about 400 miles from Bamako. On the way we stopped at the town of Konna to view the destroyed Islamists camp, where several machine gun-mounted pickup trucks were destroyed, along with one armored carrier. Armaments were strewn everywhere, indicating a fierce battle had taken place.

In Douentza, we met up with our Malian escort team, consisting of 20 Malian soldiers in four pickup trucks with mounted machine guns, to accompany us the last 120 miles over extremely rugged terrain leading to Timbuktu. The fear was that Islamists could still be embedded in the area near the Niger River crossing. We arrived after midnight without any issues other than two flat tires, at which time the convoy surrounded us for protection.

The next morning we met with Col. Keba Sangare, the head of Malian forces, at Fort Elbekaye to get a briefing. He reiterated that security had improved dramatically since last April. He said the people are more involved in reporting suspicious activity, since some of the Islamists have relatives living there. More than 1,000 Islamists were driven out since the incursion began in January. He further noted that, if the French troops were to leave, it would be difficult to keep security in the region — the Islamists would come back.

With an escort of 10 Malian military vehicles, we went to Mr. Toure’s town, Bourem Sidi-Amar, where more than a thousand people lined the entry road waving Malian and French flags. Col. Sangare assured the villagers that they could count on the military to protect them. Several village elders told me they were thankful the Islamists were gone, since they inflicted brutality on the people.

In Timbuktu, there was a peaceful feeling, with shops open and people walking everywhere. There were even young boys listening to music, which had been forbidden under Sharia law. At the Hotel Colombe, the owners were barely getting by with journalists and other media people staying there. They were hopeful that security would continue so that tourists could again arrive at the airport, the main access to Timbuktu.

On Thursday, March 21, I was awakened at 4 a.m. by an explosion. At first it appeared to be a dream. Then reality set in as there was continuous gunfire, which seemed to last for several hours. At daybreak Mirage jets were flying back and forth over Timbuktu. Soon we were asked to evacuate the hotel and go to the nearby military camp, where Col. Sangare gave us a briefing.

Five miles from the edge of town a car or pickup drove past a checkpoint without stopping. In the firefight that followed, the suicide bomber inside the vehicle detonated his belt, injuring seven Malian soldiers. Five insurgents were killed and one was captured. A Malian soldier apparently was killed by friendly fire. A second report indicated there were insurgents at the airport, and two suicide bombers were killed before they could detonate their belts.

Timbuktu was under tight security, and leaving the area was not recommended. No escort would be provided, so we were trapped.

Early Friday, in the hotel lobby, Swedish TV producer Felix Lamo alerted me that a U.N. Humanitarian Air Service plane was coming to pick up 10 journalists, and he suggested that I call to see if I could get out with them, since there were no other options planned. With the help of the assistant regional security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bamako, who called the U.N. dispatcher, I was assured a seat on the plane. Under tight French security, the plane departed for Mopti, where I arranged for an SUV for the 14-hour drive back to Bamako. The aging vehicle was not forgiving and overheated every 50 miles, needing water that was not readily available at times. Within 100 miles of my destination, I called Mr. Samake, who was just leaving Timbuktu in a military convoy and offered to have his driver in Bamako bring an SUV to rescue me.

In Timbuktu, this was the first occurrence of a suicide bombing attack. In the town of Gao, the first such attack in the region took place in early February. Gao again came under attack last Saturday, when a number of Islamists entered the town from two directions and a firefight broke out with French, Malian and Nigerian soldiers. Four Islamists, one soldier and four civilians were killed.

The liberation of the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal may be short-lived, as Islamists continue their hit-and-run attacks. This means the extremists are still embedded in the region. Their new guerrilla tactics now include suicide bombers attempting to infiltrate the towns, adding another dimension to their devastating brutality — scaring the local populace — and affecting the freedom of movement in the towns.

A version of this article was previously published in The Washington Times.

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  • J Stearns

    What a harrowing trip! I admire your courage. How can we help resolve the conflict?
    JS