Nouakchott to Timbuktu

I have been quiet on my blog since departing Nouakchott, Mauritania with Betsy loaded up with her new diesel Mercedes 608 engine in ┬ámid January That was … hmmm … must be 2-3 weeks ago now. For the last stretch I had to concentrate on the job in hand and keep things under the radar.

Today, from Timbuktu, I can break my silence. The first stage of the Caravan of Courage and Hope is complete – Radwan is home on his lands near Timbuktu. We still have his family to persuade and bring home and things are far from perfect but something has been achieved, and with that comes a relief and a sense of freedom.

From now it is time to speak out, to lay bare the truth as it has been for Radwan and as it has been for me and my team. We have separately proved to ourselves that we will prevail. Now we have nothing to fear. We have achieved nothing much – just a journey home of an old man and his son and an escape from the clutches of the gendarmerie, but the symbolism of Radwan’s journey will live on for a while. If that is our only legacy that is something at least, a statement has been made, a small battle has been won.

Radwan is back home, on his lands that look across the Niger river to Koremi, the port for Timbuktu 15kms to the north. It was at Koremi just over a week ago as we arrived off the car ferry after Radwan’s journey from the Burkina Faso camp, where Radwan was welcomed home by the Malian military with humiliating arrest hardly befitting not only an 84-96 year old man (I’ve lost count of the guesses) but a family elder, a chief of the Kel Hajatassafan clan and, because of his age and warrior experience, overall chief of the wider tribe of the Tuareg from the river Niger region.

Today he is free and back under his tree on the banks of the Niger. The journey has been long and full of problems, and it is not over yet, for Radwan as for Ishmael and the family and as for me. But today we sense that these problems will work for us, because today, with Radwan’s humiliating reception out for all to see, all relevant authorities – MINUSMA, UNHCR, the Mali state, the Governor of the region and the Mayor of Timbuktu – are informed, ORTM, the Malian state television witnessed Radwan’s arrest, word has spread through the refugee community like wild fire. Even if it has become clear that none of these authorities will help us, nor that the media will support us, none can deny what happened to Radwan Ag Ayouba on his return to Timbuktu. Radwan and Ishmael’s courage has paid off, and now we can speak openly and truthfully about what is going on in Radwan’s beloved country.

To describe what this means, to tease out the implications, to give a reaction Radwan’s few words to the cameraman present, as ever, suffice: “that is for tomorrow, today I am here and tired.”

When then asked if he had any message or anything to say on his return to his lands the old man, who had revived himself after our pirogue journey across the Niger, lay back wearily from sitting and said simply: “I fear politics, not people. I am with my people, I don’t want to say anything”.

Radwan had summed up perfectly everything about the Caravan of Courage and Hope from its idea to execution. On hearing this I understood this strange deep relationship I have with an old chief with whom I cannot converse. Its our instincts that match. It’s that moment when we were alone in his tent after our first meeting 8 months ago in the camps when he pulled me back from exiting with the others and fixed my eyes fast to examine my soul. In that look he sought trust, then gave it and guaranteed it.

Now back in Timbuktu, me a stranger, he not wanted, between us the gulfs of generations and continents, cultures and languages, worlds and experience, after a mutual journey mostly spent apart, we both can only conclude from what we have seen and experienced, and now feel and think of the past years in Mali that we fear politics – all of it.

Radwan was the first and most important chief to believe in the idea of returning home being the only solution to the refugee situation, declaring 100% support. His trust of me has never wavered, as my respect and trust of him has remained firm. It is the politics, both domestic and international, that caused Radwan to flee his lands for the first time in his life. Now the domestic and international politics re-grafts itself to re-establish its mutually preferred status quo, continues to re-circulate its money and its jobs, but on the ground, for the people of Mali, both those inside and outside the country, it continues to do nothing.

To begin to understand this specific journey, mine and Radwan’s and ours, or the journey of Mali over the past 5 years, will take, for me, a book to write.

For now, to explain today, I need to take you back to Nouakchott, because only the journey to here can explain anything at this strange moment of great joy in achievement but deep, sad and tired emptiness at the context in which we all, in Mali, still find ourselves.

Nouakchott to Bamako
Back to Nouakchott around 20 January.

Mohammed Ali was happy. Betsy was done. The past week had been fraught, he knew time was running out for me, but he wanted to get everything right for the journey ahead and as he had said at the beginning: “putting into a diesel engine into a petrol truck is like making a camel out of donkey.”

He was very happy with the engine. The electrics – starter at 24 volts and everything else at 12 volts – answered for the final complications but as Mohammed Ali had said “with this engine you can throw away the batteries and the alternator and push start it and it will roll forever. The engine is fully mechanical, only the starter is electric”.

Mohammed Ali was the third Mohammed to have rescued this journey, the third time the right man has crossed my path at the right time. The first was Mohammed “Moose” in Ceuta who put me up for 3 weeks, parked my vehicles and trailer for free – Maud and the trailer are still there – out of belief in my journey.

The second Mohammed guardian angel (there was Abdullai, Cheick and Beni in between) was Mohammed with the big Mercedes truck that towed me in Betsy from the Morocco/Mauritania border 500kms to Nouakchott.

This Mohammed Ali, 57, partially crippled, was the only person I still trusted to be working in my best interests in the project to get Betsy back up and running. Nouakchott was getting on my nerves and Oulibou the auberge owner and his mate Mohammedoun, who were supposed to be organising the engine refit and guarantee my exit from Mauritania on money owed to me by Oulibou were clearly trying to eat into the debt as much as possible rather than working towards my best interests. But with Mohammed Ali who hadn’t been properly paid by my fixers, he believed in me and the journey I was on, he was putting the project first and he enjoyed the challenge of creating a camel out of a donkey!

I spent many hours and days sitting with him discussing “real Islam, the Islam of the Qu’ran.” I eat and slept in his home and from the moment I met him I believed in him and what he was doing to Betsy, another safe pair of hands was written in his face and twinkled from his eyes.

So after 20 days Betsy and I left Nouackcott with Christophe, a French traveller hitching a ride to Bamako. We alternated the driving and sleeping in the tent in the back of Betsy we killed the 1000 kms to the Mali border in one 24 hours. 100kms out of Nouakchott I noticed the back axle was leaking oil. Called Mohammed Ali “mix axle oil with grease and top up the axle”. Problem solved. The road between Kifffa and Tintane as ever was the only rough bit of the journey which lost me a headlight and broke battery fuses, but a simple push start and on we rolled towards the Mali border.

Usual piss taking by the final Mauritanian Gendarmes posts, usual tedium with police and gendarme and customs, usual happy casual police welcome on the Malian side, usual friends of friends, then the on-going unusual “armed escort” to Bamako bullshit with the Gendarme. We have to be escorted first to Niorro 100 kms away, and then from Niorro to Bamako. Totally pointless – if I came from Bamako to Niorro there’s no need! – but, we are told it’s on the insistence of the French and our western embassies. Ah yes it was they who began with all the security announcements long before there was any problem in Mali and so I suppose apt that it is they who are late to recognise that peace has returned. And if it hasn’t by now, what does this say about their campaign. The French declared it would take a month. That was a year ago. Or is it that things move more quickly on the ground than through the airwaves?

At Niorro I received a sign that things were going to go well for me from now. Miraculously the customs chief in Niorro let me through with a tourist ‘caravan” laisser passer, which permits me to move freely in Mali for a month. Niorro, and this particular customs chief, was my final hurdle. He may well have recognised me and either forced me to pay duty on Betsy or might have enforced an escort across Mali to Burkina as he did to me last time through. So I had Tonato, my Tuareg connection with the customs in nearby Diamma lined up and Bilal my policeman friend from Aguelhoc in position to plead my case. But things were on my side, he was casual in his tracksuit on a lazy Sunday, and he had a hidden passion: for old antique trucks: “Fifty Seven years! Ah! This is the Queen of England”. There was no need for my support, he granted a laisser within hours!

500kms later I made it to Bamako. I had made it to my first destination. From here at the very least I have Betsy as a home, as transport and now worth some cash. I could move on to at least very close to the Burkina border near the refugee camp at Djibo. Not a lot could stop that now and Betsy had proven her worth.

Despite having had three weeks in Nouakchott and only 4 days travelling from there, on arrival in Bamako I was exhausted. For two months I had been struggling to get here and even through the enforced rests en route the uncertainty had weighed me down. How many times had I thought all was over? How distant Bamako felt, let alone the refugee camps and the return to Timbuktu of Radwan and his family. By now I was so late anyway, I followed all advice to take as much rest as I needed before moving on across Mali towards Boni in “Monument Valley”, the last Malian village before the Burkina Border and Djibo 60 kms away.

A rest in Bamako would also give me time to see David Gressly who heads up the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and who I have been keeping in touch with the bare bones of my project. David would be in town for a few days too. I wanted to see if MINUSMA could give me any security at all for the journey with Radwan from the Burkina border to Timbuktu, even if just to meet us on arrival. I held out little help – no one to date will bend rules beyond protocol. Unfortunately the meeting with David Gressly didn’t materialise, but I wasn’t too concerned. The lesson of this trip and this idea to date has been just to go it alone. The less people who know the better and following up anyone in authority or a position to help from the UN to NGOs to the government or refugee authorities and even some with a position of influence within the refugee or Tuareg community itself, will not put themselves on the line, will not go beyond the protocol politics that takes place when the UN descends on a country.

Word came back to me from the camps that Radwan was now ready to leave. He was waiting for me. He didn’t need anything, nor did he need an assessment trip ahead of him, he was ready to go himself as soon as I was there, to Timbuktu.

So, after a 5 day rest with friends which recharged my batteries but failed to totally solve Betsy’s electrics, I set off from Bamako with Aboubacrine, the cousin of refugees I know in Burkina who was himself a refugee in the Mauritanian camps going to visit family at Djibo. We did the 600kms to Mopti in a day which is good going for a Landcruiser. In Mopti we stopped with Vieux and Sory, my pinasse river boat guys for me to organise the upcoming river trip to Timbuktu I was running for tourist clients.

One of the most frustrating things about being stranded in Nouakchott was not being able to be with two clients of From Here 2 Timbuktu who were on a trip in Mali and were joining the Caravan of Peace organised by the Festival in The Desert. They were being well looked after by my team. Hannah was currently in Burkina at the refugee camp staying with friends of mine awaiting my arrival in 2-3 days. For the upcoming Festival On The Niger I had a friend Victoria and another client Nickl coming out. Fate had decreed that I would be ready to return Radwan at the same time I had tourists out. I had to go with the hand dealt.

The plan now was to link up my return of Radwan to Timbuktu with my tourists’ trip. It was after all my tourists who were keeping me afloat, and keeping the Radwan return alive.

Planning for the first stage of the Radwan family return.
Communicating with the camp on this journey has been difficult. Before setting off from England Mohammed Ag Amattal, who I had made my primary contact for the Radwan return after being betrayed badly by my previous main confident, had died of a heart attack at only 40 years of age. Having just lost his younger brother, and with the responsibility of a large family of refugees and emerging as one of the refugees most eloquent and intelligent thinkers and leaders, I believe it was the stress of refugee life that killed Mohammed. His death had given the journey extra significance. Without Mohammed, and unable to communicate directly with Radwan as he speaks no French and my Tamashek is basic, I was having to sift through the information I was getting from less reliable sources. So I had resolved that I couldn’t plan anything until I was in front of Radwan himself.

But I needed to keep open my options and to satisfy my clients as well as Radwan. I needed to give my clients something touristy. My trips in Mali before the crisis were all based around the river which I use as the backbone of the journey to Timbuktu. The last time I was on the river with Vieux and Sory and all my team was January 2012. We had left Timbuktu with our Festival in the Desert clients on the 16th of January. By the time we arrived in Mopti the rebellion had begun. That was the last time we were all together- Sory my Peul guide from Djenne, Mohammed my Tuareg driver and closest confident from Aguelhoc in the northern desert, Abdullai Tamshek from Timbuktu, Vieux and his brother Sory and Amadou from the pinasse, Bozo from Mopti. Since that pinasse trip all have been divided depending on where they live, who they are and what their colour is. It would be fitting to return to Timbuktu with all my team. And a pinasse could take some refugees too.

I was concerned that at 85-95 years of age, ailing and unable to walk unaided, the journey overland from Burkina to Timbuktu, all off road as we needed to avoid as many gendarme posts as possible, would be too much for Radwan. So I was going to propose to him that I take him and some immediate family he wants with him for the preliminary journey to Timbuktu by pinasse. Once on the boat he needn’t move until we arrived at his lands on the south bank of the river Niger at the port. It would take three days but he’d be safe, fed and could rest all the way to Timbuktu and no one need know he was in Mali until he was on his land on the south bank.

While in Mopti I got word from my driver that the Burkina police in Djibo to the refugee camp had taken his and Hannah’s passports, were accusing Hannah of working for me and they had been following the car’s movements. They knew all about my project to help refugees return and were saying they knew I was coming or was already in the camps.

Hannah hadn’t yet met me. She had been in Burkina as part of her two month trip with FH2T. She had visited the camps with Mohammed and Abdullai and was there for the arrival of the Caravan of Peace concert. She wanted to be part of my caravan and was waiting in the camp for me to arrive in a day or two’s time.

This could only be a tip off from CONAREF, the Burkina government authority that run the refugee camps. CONAREF is a Burkina authority. Burkina makes a lot of money hosting refugees. They, like their compatriots running UNHCR in Burkina, have no interest in refugees returning or their jobs become worthless, the money stops flowing in from the UN and the building of the utilities for the settlement that will remain will have to stop.

This over escalation of rumour and speculation was also possibly connected to people in the camps who for political or self interest reasons don’t want the refugees to return. I was hearing that the heads of the six sites at Mentao, the camps close to Djibo, were talking about me organising the return of all the refugees. They are important people in the camps. Outside they are nobodies.

After a few hours Mohammed and Hannah, having taken the police to where they were staying in the camps, were given their passports back but told not to return to the camp and to leave Burkina and no one else was to be in their car.

Up to this point I had been pondering whether to risk Betsy problems getting into Burkina or to wait at Boni for Radwan and the family to come and meet me there. Now my decision was made for me – I was clearly heading into problems if I tried to get to the camps. Radwan would have to work out transport from the camps 60 kms across the border to meet me at Boni in Mali. There is no actual border or post to worry about, just a journey on track through the bush but the only transport would be on market days in either Boni or Djibo.

Mopti to Boni
From Mopti it took 24 hours to get to Boni. We were travelling West East but going from south Mali to north Mali politically. Across the divide the roads change. This road to Gao is the only tarmac road in the north of Mali, from now on its piste at best and potholed tarmac at worst pot holed. Betsy got shaken into her normal electric problems so we camped out in Douentza the night to arrange her again in the morning.

From Bamako Aboubacrine had seen how all was normal on the ground in Mali. He had set off nervous, unsure of the Mali ahead he had not witnessed for two years. Everywhere we went or stopped en route his confidence grew until we finally arrived in Boni. We didn’t come across one MUNISMA troop nor see one UN vehicle.

The lone gendarme at the turn off to Boni invited us to eat. He may come in handy so although impatient to meet up with Mohammed and Hannah, we stopped to eat. We discussed Mali, and how all wanted the same now, “peace only” and he agreed the refugees should come home. I was becoming bolder in my talk. I prefer to know in advance if what I am trying to do is going to ruffle any feathers.

Well fed up with rice and green sauce, we excused ourselves tea and rolled on to Boni. The gendarme knew where Hannah and Mohammed were staying.

As we hit the outskirts of the village nesting in a valley between two dramatic mountains of red rock – this area is mali’s dramatic “Monument valley” – I saw a very familiar red landcruiser in a mechanics yard. I reversed up Betsy to see mohammed emerging from the throng round the car.

It is always good to see Mohammed. We have been through a lot together these past few years, more than either of us fully comprehends yet, and he has been central to my time in Mali and the desert since we first met when he was the tea boy on my first trip to Aguelhoc, deep in the northern Malian desert back in 2007. We waited 10 minutes for the car to be fiished asnd then he led me to the compaound where Hannah was staying.

We entered a large compound stretching down to a river bed with cattle and a few trees and three doomed grass huts. A Tuareg woman and her son came out to greet us – it was Fatimata’s neighbour Lala from the camps, who lived behind the camp I stay in when I’m at Djibo. They led me into a hut and there was Hannah. Everything’s coming together – and it looks like I have a perfect unexpected base in Boni. I knew no one here.

It turned out that Lala had moved back with her family 3 months ago. Yet again on my criss crossing of Mali I was told ‘here is your home whenever you are here”. This journey is blessed, that I have grown to see, but this really is just what I need as I feel Boni will become an important base for me if complications for me entering the camps continue.

Meeting up with Radwan

Once in Boni, lunched and milked straight from the cows and goats on Lala’s land – this is what the refugees are missing – tea and catching up with mutual news things moved apace, African style. I spoke to Radwan’s son Ishmael who immediately looked for a way to get to Boni. That very day the motorbike he was going to hire didn’t turn up, the following day he managed to get market day transport to Boni arriving in the early evening.

On mattresses laid out by an open Betsy with her canvas frame re-erected for her new role as transporter of people, in the shadow of the two mountains to the west and east beneath a moonless starlit sky we planned the way forward. Lala and Tatu brought rice and goat meat, milk and tea as Mohammed, Ismael and I thrashed out ideas whilst Aboubacrine and Hannah.

I explained to Ishmael that I had two responsibilities, my tourist clients and Radwan and his family. That I wanted to combine the two as this would offer us a level of security. I proposed taking Radwan, Ishmael and one or two others to the pinasse and us doing the first trip to Timbuktu by river.

Ishmael said his father would prefer to go by car to Timbuktu, but that he would go with whatever I wanted.

I made it clear I had no backing. If they were to return they had to be able to support themselves. I could transport them and be with them and link them up with whatever assistance we could find from UNHCR and NGOs in Timbuktu but I wasn’t holding out much hope on this front. My approacheds to the Un to UNHCR, OCHA, IEDA, MUNISMA and any other acronym I could find had led nowhere. Promises from Bamako that asiisatnce was there in Timbuktu had proved hollow when I was in Timbuktu in October. All my experience with Mali and the UN over the past year had showed me that nothing was really happening, no one was going in any direction to help organise the peace.

We debated doing a first journey with the landcruiser and Betsy, so taking a core but significant chunk of the family or leaving the family until we had established the situation on the land and in Timbuktu for ourselves. We agreed on the latter.

We established that Radwan wanted to meet the Governor of Timbuktu to establish the state of play with his land which has a long running dispute over it which will have been exploited during the crisis. Radwan has a large leather suitcase with all his documentation in it. When you visit him, the suitcase comes out and the official declarations of his chiefdom of his territtory by colonial powers and Malian authorities are displayed. He’d bring this with his “forgerant” or man servant/advisor to look after him. He didn’t need, as I had assumed, women from the family to look after him. And that was not done – to take women on a journey like this. The forgerant would look after Radwan’s needs.

I wanted to see if there was another elder in the family we could take in case Radwan was too weak for the journey. Ishmael, Radwan’s heir and appointed spokesperson, is young and unworldly. It surprises me that someone of Radwan’s stature doesn’t have a brother to help advise Ishmael. Ishmael explained that the brothers were against return, that it had to be Radwan and himself as they were the two final decision makers. If they couldn’t go back home no one else would have the courage.

In Timbuktu I proposed that I had a hotel where we could stay. Ismael winced, Radwan had never been in a hotel, he wouldn’t like that, no they had people in Timbuktu they could stay with and once on their land they would have no problems as there are people of theirs there with animals. Once on their land they had no worries.

Ismael was charged with energy. He called family in the camp, they were to look for transport for Radwan and the forgerant to come to Boni. As we settled down for the night under the now moonlit night, word came back that Koukou, another chief I knew from Tin Habu which was on our route to Timbuktu was coming to Boni tomorrow. There was place for Radwan only but this was good news. They will leaving Djibo early morning.

Ishmael and Mohammed retired into one of Lala’s huts, I settled down for the night on a mattress by Betsy to take in the fresh clean night air. Everything was coming together. I could hardly believe I was in Boni, yet alone that Radwan would be with me in the morning.

Radwan arrives

Dawn felt fresh, good and new. There was expectation in the air, a right royal ‘etranger” was expected by Lala, Tatu, me, Mohammed and Aboubacrine.

We idled away the morning with many teas and speculation about the journey ahead, then at midday as we wrere all dozing out the heat, a phone call energised the compound: Koukou and Radwan had arrived in Boni. Mohammed went to collect them to bring them to Lala’s place.

Ten minutes later Koukou’s pick up rolled in. The old man was helped out and across the compound to a prepared mattress inside. He was physically tired and weak but there was courage and energy in his mind and his eyes.

After affectionate and trusting greetings between us, Radwan declared: “Guy Tim-Buktoo – an illigila, hamarada yfouk” Which I took to mean “Let’s go, direct, now”. I laughed. “Let’s rest today, we’ll go tomorrow, we need to plan.”

He would let me plan, he was in my hands now, he would do what I thought best, but he wasn’t leaving my side until he was in Timbuktu. I accepted the deal.

After food and milk and rest – a period when I have come to see Radwan’s spirit hibernates while his body recovers itself – the force returned. I was alone with him in the hut. He rose to sitting and indicated his nose. Did he want it wiped? I called Ishmael in to translate.

“He wants to be shaved.”

“He wants you to do it. Head and beard, all off”.

Jesus. I’d never shaved anyone else before, let alone a mewling and dribbling old man with loose skin. But there’s was no getting out of it, so I got together my shaving equipment and to much amusement I began shaving. It was difficult so Koukou’s son helped me shave him in tandem. After about an hour, having done his head and half his beard, Radwan needed to rest. He looked a bit odd in the beard, but as this is the part of his face always covered he didn’t care. We’d continue later.

To today the later opportunity hasn’t occurred, but over a week later the old man has grown into his lop sided stubble and you wouldn’t know anymore!

That afternoon Ishmael began vacillating on the plan ahead. He began doubting whether Radwan was up to the journey, we debated going with just Ismael and another elder. We still needed to get the forgerant to Boni and Radwan had left his suitcase behind, but there was no transport coming this way.

The centre was no longer holding and I began to feel that the unknown reality before them was playing on their minds. Perhaps we should have done what Radwan wanted and just made a bee line for Timbuktu while the oven was hot.

Another debate was about whether Ishmael had held arms. If anyone can be pointed at as having held arms with the secular MNLA he could have problems. No matter that it is the Malian military and the local militia that performed the exactions of the past year, no matter that the military and all authority pulled out of the north at the time of the coup d’etat so leaving the population to the mercy of whatever group came in leaving young men with little choice but to join one group or another, no matter that it was AQMI, Ansar Dine and MUJAO that occupied the north and imposed their sharia law. The worst thing you can be in Mali today is MNLA. A refugee returning today will more readily link himself with the “islamists” than the MNLA just to save his skin.

There was lots of toing and froing of plans and logistics and Ishamel was changing his mind from minute to minute, one moment finding courage and wanting to go on, the next working out how he could go alone and thinking about Radwan’s health, then giving up all together. As Ishmael went to bed Mohammed suggested that it may be the pinasse journey that they were unsure about. They were doing it for me, but perhaps it was that that was discouraging them.

I stayed up long after everyone was asleep seeking inspiration in the night sky and the clean cool air. I didn’t want to convince them to do anything they didn’t want to do, but also I knew if they missed this chance their return would have to wait for the UN and from what I could see that would certainly be months away, and likely even years. I resolved to give Radwan the saviour of his people speech in the morning as one last ditch. We’d forget the pinasse, we’d just go straight to Timbuktu in my landcriusier, leaving Betsy in Boni for our return to collect the family if all went well.

To Timbuktu
There was no need for my early hours deliberation. In the morning over dough balls and tea for breakfast, Ishmael had new resolve and clear vision. We had arrived at the same conclusion. We forget the suitcase, forget the forgerant, forget the pinasse and just go direct today in the landcruiser to Timbuktu to see the governor.

Quickly we all prepared to leave before any change of mind. This felt right, time to just do it now.

We parked away Betsy closer to the family’s huts packed up the landcruiser with our luggage, said our goodbyes loaded our prize cargo in the front passenger seat, belted him up and scrammed.

Two kms later the gendarme post where I had lunch 3 days ago. We were waved through without inspection. Five hundred meters along the tarmac of the main road across Mali and we took a piste heading north west into the Malian sahel, different, cleaner, drier than the Burkina climate Radwan had been prisoner to. We dipped behind the dramatic escarpment. Mohammed driving like a master on the sandy track, Radwan quiet and resolved, Ishmael nervous but positive, Hannah just taking things as they come, the best way to travel.

After half an hour through the cool early morning a pick up came towards us. Koukou returning from Tin Habu. All fine for them at Tin Habu and all fine and quiet en route.

We pressed on, Radwan refused water just held on with his four fingered right hand and stared straight ahead. Tuareg guitar music strengthened our purpose and our enjoyment of the moment, travelling through Mali off road, free, another day another journey, just like the old days.

At occasional camps we asked directions and everytime people recognised or heard that in the car was Radwan Ag Ayouba. He and Ishmael were greeted warmly and as we progressed we realxed more and more, all quietly questioning why we’d been so cautious. The problem all along has not been the people but the politics, we know that, but rumours circulate, speculation in the camps is always rife.

By lunchtime we made it to the main Douentza -Timbuktu road at Bambara Maude. At the gendarme post they were only concerned to take Hannah’s and my details, they checked Ishmael’s refugee card and accepted that Radwan the old man was of an age before such things.

We stopped for rice and sauce, a quick tea and a water and kicked on. By three o’clock we approached the river. A few kms out Ishmael pointed out their well and the extent of their land. As the river nears the road becomes a spit of land across the otherwise flooded land which in this season is just bare and dry. Ismael pointed out the extent of their lands in the wet season and then where they move in the dry. At some basic shops again people crowded the car to see Radwan and jostled with Ishmael. This was becoming the great home coming. Ishmael was now so relaxed and happy and Radwan seemed quiet and at ease. But we weren’t staying on their land. We wanted to get to Timbuktu, to go and see the Governor.

In the lull I called an ORTM Malian state journalist who I had been in touch with about the caravan. I wanted to tell him we’d be in Timbuktu this evening. I couldn’t get through.

We went onto pick up the ferry to find it already in and waiting for us. A bus was trying to embark but got stuck in the sand. If the bus got on we might not make the ferry and would have to wait 2 hours for it to return. I told Mohammed to try and get in front of the bus and I jumped out to persuade the ferry driver to let us on ahead of the bus with our precious cargo, Radwan Ag Ayouba. The man next to the ferryman greeted me by name to my surprise, then introduced himself as the ORTM journalist and pointed out that Mohammed was already now on the ferry with the car. The stars were truly on our side!

Like the camps en route, like the village nearby so on the ferry Radwan caused a stir. Old men sat in the car and chatted with him, holding his hand and giving him his due respect. The ORTM journalist greeted Radwan warmly and then we looked on and discussed how significant Radwan could be, we talked of how Timbuktu and Mali just needs the refugees to return and for things to get back to normal now, everyone wants the same thing, peace. Radwan returning could trigger a lot of others to follow. There was another car full of returning refugees, all women and children but the driver. I knew some of them from Ouagdougou, we exchanged numbers and before we all knew it we were arriving at Koremi, the port for Timbuktu.

As we turned into the inlet that led us to the approach for the ferry the sun was low in the sky ahead of us. I wanted to film radwan getting off the ferry but the low sun would make that difficult. Where the cars descend something glistened behind the blinding light. I picked out a military pick up with gun pointing out guarding the approach. Odd I thought, never seen that, perhaps its the times, a precaution. I looked over to Ishmael. He was nervous but covering it, Mohammed was unusually flustered. I wanted a picture but the scene was straight into the sun.

The ferry landed, engines started. The car in front wouldn’t start. When we moved forwards the ferryman signalled us to move to the side. Mohammed muttered “What’s all this?” Cars from behind passed.

Ours was the only remaining vehicle, the foot passengers now filed off, and the military walked on towards the car.