The benefits of an armed escort to Bamako

An armed escort to Bamako

It really is impossible not to love Mali. However bad things seem to get here on the uber political level where acronyms play charades on CNN and BBC, talking of AQMI, MUJAO and UNHCR, things on the ground remain reassuringly human business as usual.

While to outsiders Mali may suddenly appear to be a haven of insecurity, crisis and terrorism, to those in the know and on the ground it remains what it has always been, and probably always will be: a place of music, innocence and hospitality; chilled humorous and wonderfully naive.

Hamma, one of my Timbuktu guides, has this year learnt about the parallel disconnects between the outside world’s view of his country and the reality; and reverse disconnect between the African perspective on Europe and the reality. 

Like many in Africa, Hamma thought a ticket to Europe would be the answer to his dreams of work and opportunity, a life of milk and honey. And coming at the outbreak of the crisis in Mali, Hamma’s chance to move to Spain to live with his new Spanish wife seemed manna from heaven. But after a year of the European crisis with its unemployment, bitter loneliness, cold and weight loss – “see how I am thinning Guy” – he decided to try his chances back home again, despite al Qaeda being in control. He’d be better off. Knowing I was driving back to Mali he called me up to ask for a lift.

Hamma and I recently arrived in Bamako from my Sahara Overland trip. We were coming down across the Sahara for the caravan of peace with three clients, but with war in Mali the caravan had been cancelled and my clients opted for the perceived security of Senegal.

So I handed my clients over to my Senegalese operators for a cruise up the River Senegal and Hamma and I came on home to Mali.

I had been informed as I approached the border between Mauritania and Mali that whiteys would have to pay €150 for an armed escort from the border to Bamako.

Given I think the risk of kidnap these days is very small (see this post), and that I was going to be entering into the safest part of the country in the east, over 2000miles away from where the nasties are, this irked me a bit.

I sought out a remote border post, hoping the directive may not have got through. It was so remote that the police in the last Mauritanian town of Selibaby weren’t too sure if they needed to stamp me out or whether the post at the frontier 40 kms further on had their own stamp. In the end the frontier post had lost their stamp, so they just scribbled a note in my passport that they’d seen me pass.

We crossed a dried up river to the Malian side. As we approached the custom’s shack, a man dozing in a chair opened one eye. Once this eye had registered my white skin, the other opened as though this evidence before him indicated that he must have been a sleep for a long long time.

After welcoming me into his office, he began organising my laisser passer for my vehicle. As I had no local currency he took my word for the euro/cfa exchange rate, issued the laisser passer and welcomed me back to Mali. 

I asked how security was in the region: “Pas de problem, rien de tout ici”. “Ah good, so i don’t need an armed escort?”. “Ah, you will have to ask the Captain”.

He called a young lad over to show me the way to the military post.

Here I was greeted by the Captain with the tightest handshake i have ever received – with him I was in secure hands. He and his “elements” were just having the second tea, for life, so we all sat and discussed the current “life” situation in the surrounding region. 

He explained that although it was true that there was no problem in the region, there was a directive from on high that all tourists have an armed escort to Bamako. So he’d send me to Kayes with three of his guys. I could stay at the military camp there and go on with their chaps to Bamako in the morning.

Our escort was made up of a Tamasheq (Tuareg), an Arab and a Bambara – a good example of the essential racial harmony that this country enjoys in normal times. We had a very pleasant journey through the early evening, listening to my Tuareg music and discussing the news and Tamasheq women. We stopped off for a wee break. Suddenly some headlights appeared from behind us in the bush. As they approached my “elements” grabbed their rifles and demanded “who goes there”. I hid behind my car and slowly backed into the bush just in case!

The vehicle stopped, rabbits in the headlights – just a bush taxi, shooed off into the bush to follow “any other track but ours.”

“Let’s go, we don’t want their dust”.

Night had long fallen when we rolled into Kayes. At the Kayes camp I tried again to argue that I was happy to proceed to Bamako without an escort, but to no avail. My new captain – Mali is full of captains –  put forward his future career as the main reason he could not let me go on alone. 

For my security, I must camp here in the military camp. I suggested that the Malian military themselves were the number one target now for our “islamist” friends so perhaps the camp was not the safest place for me to stay, but the captain shrugged that these were his directives. And furthermore, if I wanted to go out and eat I must take a guard. How absurd! If Mali was that dangerous did he think I would have been allowed into the country?

Having crossed the Sahara desert in charge of my own destiny, I felt I could go out in Kayes for a drink and some food without putting myself at too much risk, even though this was my first night in war torn Mali. It was time to test this guy’s resolve! 

After a very welcome bucket shower and plenty of sprucing up  – first time in a couple of days – and clear indications that we were soon to go out as I was starving, Hamma and I got into the car, drove about the compound a bit to give them warning and approached the gate. But the discussions over tea and the champions league football on the tv seemed to be more engaging and no one noticed me champing to leave.

The one soldier guarding the camp gate didn’t bat an eyelid as I drove out, so out we went, into the Kayes night.

We grabbed some street food and I practiced my Bambara again, rusty but as always mirth inducing, had a much longed for beer (Mali is the first beer stop after south Spain) and chatted to a rather drunk head teacher before returning to the camp a couple of hours later. 

Nobody had noticed our absence.

The next morning, before leaving with our new armed escort, I decided to try my chances again with the captain. I told him about our night’s wanderings and how, given his country is at war and yet he was asking me to pay for my own security to Bamako, the one sleepy guard at the gate had not exactly made me feel strongly protected from his “possible” AL Qaeda attack, and I wasn’t sure today’s guard were going to be doing much more for me.

I told him I knew a little bit about what was going on in Mali and that I knew “our friends in the north” probably better than he did, and knew very well that the chances of an ugly Algerian big-beard, who has the French military might on his shoulders right now, wasting energy trying to nab me, an Englishman (so there ain’t even any cash in me – if they take me they kill me) between Kayes and Bamako (perhaps the safest 600kms in the country given it is as far from any danger zone that you could get in this vast country twice the size of France) were far more remote than his chances of staging a third coup d’etat over that other Malian captain, Mr SANAGO.

I accepted that Mali was in a state of emergency so I didn’t mind taking the escort, but I couldn’t see why I should pay for it.

Touchéd a little by my challenge, this clearly thoroughly decent and capable captain politely and kindly – everyone is always polite and kind here – assured me that my protection was stronger than it seemed, that perhaps there was only one sleepy guard on the gate, but I couldn’t see “les elements chachés” – that would have been all the hidden snipers whose shadows I sensed jumping from roof to roof covering my movements last night!

Bottom line was that the governor of the region had set this directive, his career was ahead of him, it was not worth the chance of something happening to me falling on his shoulders. But he’d give me a 25% discount on the price. I would now only be paying for the “elements” and not their bus fares back from Bamako.

Yea yea OK let’s go.

So 40,000cfa was the deal, €60. I only had euros on me. 

The Captain whistled in two guards, one was Gendarme, one was National Secuirty, blue with flecks and green, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee and two old looking rifles.

First I needed to get my police and immigration stamps sorted. My guard directed the way. Within a few turns I realised they were taking me to the wrong Police station – I had made this mistake before. No no they inisted, they would just get it done here.  Ok. In we March. 

“Ah no, that is done at the Commisariat”.

I took them to the Commisariat, the old French Prison house with its Romanesque cell as you walk in, and soon I was legalised into Mali.

Last stop, bank to withdraw money and our guards wanted to change their euros.

ATM, bop bop bop, I’m sitting back in the car cashed up waiting for Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee to exchange their euros. After 20 minutes they return.

We’re off! Bamako. “Attends”.

What now? Dum jumps out and runs back to the bank. Two minutes later he’s back, with his rifle.

Our whole journey back to Bamako was wonderfully laid back. My guards dozed most of the way, when we stopped to eat they left their rifles in the car and they went into one food stall Hamma and I went into another. We all discussed Mali and what was needed, my opinion as valid as theirs, the one supported what Sanago had done the other not so sure.

When we needed more fuel, the sheep occupying the first pump forced me to pull up to the second unmarked pump and without questioning me the attendant put in 2 liters of unleaded petrol into my diesel tank. We waited here for an hour while a mechanic was called to come and drain the tanks. I fought my own battle with the pump attendant, forcing him to at least pay for the bloody mechanic he’d forced himself to call, seeing I had lost 20 liters of good diesel because of his stupidity.

Throughout the day though I was happier then I had been for three months. I was back in Mali again!