Radwan and Ishmael arrested in Timbuktu but the lion of Ewett returns

As the various uniforms – military, gendarme, plain – and shades approached the car Reservoir Dogs style Radwan stared straight ahead unflinching. Ishmael, in the back seat next to me, was uneasy – he had not his father’s experience of the battlefield to fall back on. The foot passengers looked on waiting for the action and were sent on their way. An element waved me to put down my camera.

“You and you” pointing to Radwan and Ishmael “get down from the car”.

Ismael had gone into an automatic trance and was doing as ordered. I got out. “I’m the group leader, what’s going on?”

“You are to be escorted to the gendarmerie. These two must go in the pick up”.

“All of us to be escorted?”


“Then why can’t they stay in my car to the gendarmerie?”

“These two are going in the pick up”

“The old man is 86, he’s weak and frail and can’t walk.”

“Today he will walk”.

Radwan greeted by an old friend on the ferry moments before his arrest

Radwan is greeted back by an old friend on the ferry moments before his arrest

Radwan was already turning himself to be helped down from the car. Ishmael, Mohammed and I lifted him out, gave him his stick and helped him towards the pick up, Ishmael got in and Mohammed and I lifted Radwan into the back of the military pick up while his son heaved him in like a sack of rice. As a military tool was hurrying to close the back Mohammed stopped him, moved him aside with contempt and removed Radwan’s foot from getting trapped. We shut the gate ourselves.

I moved away and called the Malian TV journalist who had by chance been on the ferry. No need for secrecy and these guys needed to see we had back up. He had seen the arrest he said and was waiting to follow us into Timbuktu.

Along the 15kms to Timbuktu the euphoria of the easy journey up here and Radwan’s welcome en route, at the port and on the ferry crossing, seemed a long way away. That was the Mali I was confident we were returning to, the Mali I thought had been won back with the President and government restored, and the international world firmly in place with its nation re-building institutions of the UN and multi-national aid organisations. Clearly the menace that paralyses the refugees from returning was still there. Where were the MINUSMA forces?

Strangely I wasn’t fearful. I was concerned for Radwan’s health and strength, I was worried for Ishmael who, as a young man, could be the target of random finger pointing – “rebel”, “islamist” it didn’t matter, because of the colour of his skin and especially his ethnicity he was vulnerable to any accusation. But Ishamel had known the risks to any young man who could be said to have held arms, we had talked about it the night before, he wouldn’t have had the courage to return if there was anything on him. Plus I had contacts in high places, and Radwan is too well known… My instincts told me this was posturing.

We were waved through the only check point into Timbuktu (Malian military, the UN peace keepers never anywhere to be seen other than guarding their own compounds). I noticed the ORTM journalist had to stop behind us – obviously not as important as us!

We entered the Timbuktu town gates, past the banks, and the hotels occupied by NGOs and the UN, turned off the main road then had a slalom of fortified sand barriers to get through which seemed a bit over the top for the gendarmerie. Then I saw the reason as we parked up: the gendarmerie was bang next door to the MINUSMA HQ. We were surrounded by white UN vehicles, sand fortifications, barbed wire.

As we unloaded the prize cargo from the pick up I noticed some white people, casual in shorts looking on. We eased Radwan down and helped him across to the gendarmerie. I was tempted to call out “Make way, dangerous tribal elder coming through!”. He was indicated towards a spring bed with a flimsy mattress and a blanket. Next to this bed were two other guys handcuffed to their bed.

Prisoners in Timbuktu

Radwan laid back, exhausted. He kept hold of my hand while his eyes, searched mine for explanation. I shrugged but gestured that all would be OK.

We waited about two hours before any courtesy of explanation was accorded us, during which time a very thin Tamashek was brought in and made an amusing scene claiming they had just arrested him for no reason in the market place and angrily emptying his pockets in the sand to show he had no machine guns stuffed under his boubou. I decided the gendarmerie had been given enough time to inform us of the reason for arrest so I asked what was happening.

“Routine identification, nothing to worry about I’m sure”.

After dark a slick in causal dress wandered through and looked us all up and down with superior contempt. He took my passport and sent it off for details to be taken down. Later he informed me that Radwan and Ishmael would have to stay overnight but that I was free to go now. I told him I’d stay with Radwan. That wouldn’t be possible. So I said he could have my passport then and I’d bring Radwan back in the morning, but I wasn’t leaving him in the gendarmerie alone. After his treatment they could not be trusted. He walked off muttering something about seeing what he could do.

Mohammed, my client Hannah and I, with some friends from Timbuktu who’d come to join us, went off to eat and get something for Radwan and Ishmael. We stopped off at a road side restaurant I know. The owner warmly greeting me back after a two year absence.

Over mince and chips and salad the restaurant began to gather our story. Hamma, the owner told of how he’d spent 8 months in prison in the gendarmerie in Bamako as he’d been fingered as an islamist collaborator because he served AQMI in his restaurant. From the expression on his face and something in his voice as he recounted his ordeal it was clear he wasn’t just “held prisoner”.

Let’s take a moment to examine this issue because it gets to the heart of the catch 22 that Malian authorities are imposing on the northern population.

In April 2012 there was a coup d’etat in Bamako caused by military discontent at the President’s and the government’s handling of the MNLA rebellion that had thus far humiliated the capacity of the military (despite years of “counter terrorism” training from the US and French forces on the ground in Mali since around 2005).

Following the coup d’etat all state authority – the gendarmes, the military and the police – were pulled out of the north leaving the population totally unprotected. The MNLA and Islamist forces swept down and took the northern territory in 3 days without a shot being fired. Suddenly there were different “authorities” in place and within weeks the MNLA secular and separatist movement had been usurped by Al Qaeda related forces who dismissed the independence claims and imposed sharia law.

Young men were inevitably pressurized into joining one group or another and with no where else to turn, young Tuareg either joined the MNLA or fled others may have accepted work for money with AQMI – they were paying well, or you just kept your head down and tried to carry on with your life.

And people like the Hamma, people with businesses tried to carry on scraping a living while everything was in crisis, inevitably had to serve their new ruling masters.

Then when the French came through and “liberated” the north they reinstated the Malian military to organise the return of the state to the north. The forces that had abandoned the population now sought revenge not against the rebels or islamist forces with arms whom they had fled but against the population. Anyone with a grievance against anyone else could denounce them as a terrorist, a collaborator, a rebel… And the revenging Malian authorities take anyone’s word as truth – or at least as reason to arrest.

This was what I was beginning to suspect had happened to Radwan and Ishmael. Someone at the port or perhaps on the ferry, perhaps with a grudge against the family over the long running land dispute that Radwan was coming back to see the Governor about, had called the gendarme or the military and said Radwan was coming back and that was sufficient pretext to mobilize a pick up and enough elements to intimidate, harass and humiliate the old chief and his son.

After hearing our story over post meal teas, Hamma told us to hang on a bit before returning to Radwan with his meal. Ten minutes later he came over with a tea pot with freshly made tea for Radwan and Ishmael.

Back at the gendarmerie we were told off by MUNISMA security for parking in their patch – we parked up in exactly the spot the military had earlier told us to park at the end of our escort from the port. We explained our situation but they were more concerned about the parking so after I had got out my bedding for the night – no word had come back from smoothy about my proposal about leaving my passport so I assumed I was staying for the night – Mohammed moved the car so we weren’t taking up MINUSMA sand.

The gendarmes had already given Radwan and Ishmael some food but the tea was very welcome. I was still hungry so I tucked into my second meal of the night. The others left and then to the gendarmes’ horror started setting out my mattress for the night in the car park.

I had understood the mind games. Good cop bad cop. The arrest was the scare tactics. Now we were with the gendarmes the good guy disguise was on and we’d just be bored to death pending enquiries. Having understood this, plus with all those UN vehicles parked up nearby, plus seeing that my white man presence was putting them off guard a bit, I began to embolden my stance.

I explained to the duty officer who was unhappy about my bed in the sand that I had told the smooth Lt in the slacks and shirt that either I was staying with Radwan or I was leaving my passport and taking him home. The officer balked and told me to call the Lt. I refused, saying I wasn’t going to use up my credit, that he’d left me promising to see what he could do, and I’d heard nothing so I presumed he hadn’t been able to resolve the issue so… If he wanted me to leave then he should come back to the gendarmerie and I’ll give him my passport. The duty officer pleaded that I couldnt stay and that Radwan and Ishmael would be looked after : ‘have you seen us treat him badly?” You see the routine!

“I’ve seen something tonight I’ve never seen in my life, and something I never expected to see in Mali of all places – an 86 year old man treated like a dog. You guys clearly can’t be trusted with Radwan’s welfare, and as it was me who facilitated his return to Timbuktu, I will take responsibility for him now. So I’m going to sleep here.”

I laid out my mattress, my sheep skins and got out my Algerian Djelaba which had become my sleeping bag since mine had been stolen in Rabat. I began writing an email to David Gressly, my top dog contact at the UN and posting photos and my news on facebook. Time to cause a stir. Oh look, facebook tells me it’s my birthday today!

About an hour later as I was about to sleep a new guy was called to the scene to convince me to move. We discussed the situation, my outrage, he showed me how the gendarmerie was not like the military, asked me if anything had been amiss here and then that I couldn’t stay here “for my security”. Hang on! Wasn’t I secure even here?

Whenever I hear “for your security” coming out of any authority’s mouth I know I am standing before obfuscation. “You know Mr Guy, we are a target for the islamists.” Today in Mali everyone, France, the government, the UN, the military or the gendarmerie trawl out the phantom bogeyman to justify their presence, their jobs, their terror and arrests and their inaction.”For your security it is better you go to a hotel”.

Ah yes, the safety of the hotel. I remember arriving in Gao back in 2009 during the kidnappings to be told as I entered the city that I couldn’t stay with my friend in a random house in town but had to go to a hotel “for my security”. Arguing that hotels tended to be associated with tourists got me nowhere “at a hotel we can put an armed guard.” The first armed men who arrived was 2 days later . They were American, “Captain Stewart, call me Doug, what’s your number Guy, just in case…?”.

“Well if I’m not safe here nor is Radwan”.

“It’s not the same. If a westerner gets into trouble we get into big problems with the embassies”.

Ah the embassies. Those who started all the Al Qaeda warnings back in 2008, slashing tourism to the north sparking the swift decline of the economy. The on-the-ground faces of the governments whose militaries were here throughout the build up to the crisis, monitoring this “security threat” but doing nothing until they were obliged to intervene. Now this on-going declaration of “security threat” justifies the French presence long after the Al Qaeda guys have drifted over to Libya, permits the UN to lock itself in security bureaucracy, gives the Malian government reason to avoid reconciliation, and keeps the refugees in exile.

The plain truth is that on the ground, in the communities, travelling across the country, walking the streets of the cities like Timbuktu, camping out in the desert at night, talking to the people who have returned or those who never left, those in the bush or in the town … All report the same as what I have seen: there is nothing there. And if it is, its keeping very quiet.

Ishmael comes over to persuade me they will be fine and to go. I don’t want to become the problem, I’ve made my stand. I call Mohammed to return to collect me. The chief says he’ll take me: of course he will! I don’t care, he can see where I stay, I can hardly go unnoticed now! And by tomorrow, everyone will know anyway, I’ll make sure of that.

Timbuktu Gendarmerie

A birthday prisoner

That night I couldn’t sleep. Forty five years of age! Half way to Radwan for Christ’s sake.

I wrote an email to David Gressly reporting the day’s events. In the morning I got a reply, it had been passed on to relevant people.

In the morning I called the Governor of the Timbuktu region, and the Mayor, both were at meetings in Bamako, both suggested others who could help.

UNHCR in Bamako would message the Timbuktu office, I should expect a “Mamadou” to come round. I called security at MINUSMA.

Back at the gendarmerie UNHCR Mamadou was already there, he was strong with the gendarmes insisting on Radwan’s dignity being restored. Human rights came over with MINUSMA, took down notes, tutted and sighed and retired to file their report. I learnt that one of the guys handcuffed to the bed was taken in at a market place, pointed out as an ‘islamist”. He was black Tuareg, about 17 or 18, wide eyed, a shepherd with no other language than Tamashek, and kept repeating “islamist no”. The closest he probably ever got to “islamism” was having a goat stolen by them. He was the only one chained to the bed: clearly a real threat.
Radwan and Ismael were interviewed by the gendarmes and then there was the long wait for response from Bamako. It was pointed out to me that the guy in the green boubou was state security. Strange, I thought he was Tuareg (actually turned out Arab). He was the most useful person of the day, was clearly there for Radwan’s sake and gently managed to prevent a second night at the gendarmerie by getting them guaranteed by a relation. Twenty four hours after we arrived they were released under technical house arrest.

Radwan and Ishmael went to stay with relatives in town.

I spent the next day checking out what assitance we could get for the family return. The Mayor and Governor were still in Bamako.

MINUSMA: could do nothing to help. I asked about security in the event of bringing the family back. The most they could do was, if informed beforehand, they could “happen” to be patrolling to the port. But I was warned if anything happened or anyone was arrested they could do nothing.

UNHCR still not handing any assistance out to refugees, could not give me any order of mission or help with the return as this would count as an “organised” return, which I had already learnt was the bogey word re the refugees for all those charged with ‘organising” the peace in Mali.. The policy is refugees are free to return voluntarily but there is no planned UNHCR repatriation nor any discussion on plans.

Went to IEDA to see if they could help with getting Radwan’s well sorted out. They could but they’s need security clearance and authorization to visit. At time of writing, 5 weeks later, they still haven’t managed to get the security clearance to travel the 15km to look at the well. I can drive out there at any moment but the people on the ground supposedly organising the rehabilitation of the city and the people cannot go anywhere until they have a big dossier of authorizations from their own organisations.

After 5 days of house arrest Radwan and Ishamel were released (after a ransom was paid by relatives in Saudi Arabia.)

Crossing the Niger to Ewett

Radwan wanted to go back to his lands immediately so we all drove off to the port of Koriemi, the scene of his arrest. While we searched for a pirogue to take us across the Ewett, Radwan soaked up the hypocritical salutations of the Koriemi folk – those who a week ago had applauded his arrest.

We hired a pirogue and crossed the river Niger to Ewett, a flat expanse of flood plain land with the odd tree here and there; the land Radwan, with legal documents from the French colonial administration backing up his sword and shield, has fought all his life to protect; the land Radwan wanted to discuss with the Governor who had thus far not found the time to meet us.

Radwan Ag Ayouba

After dodging the Timbuktu hippos the pirogue landed in the “bourgo” reeds. Slowly Radwan moved down the pirogue, was lifted out into the water and helped onto dry land. A small crowd had gathered and the old man was hauled up the slope to a lone tree near an old mud dwelling. Mats were laid out and Radwan collapsed down.

The chief has landed

Radwan and his tree

“Radwan Ag Ayouba, Radwan Ag Ayouba, Radwan Ag Ayouba” wailed a large black woman as she pressed his hands, his arms his legs.

Radwan was home.

Guy Lankester and Radwan Ag Ayouba

I had thought of this day for a year, Radwan I’m sure for two years and now we were there. A sheep was slaughtered before us.
For the rest of the day we all just lay under what I was told was Radwan’s tree, planted by his own hands, eating the mutton in various servings as neighbours came by to greet their returning landlord.

Radwan's Tree

We stayed for two days. With no sign of IEDA or UNHCR coming to assess the situation for the family return, Radwan and Ishmael decided there was no point in waiting and with two fingers to the mouth and a big farting blow Radwan indicated via his habitual gesture that he believed none of their weasel words and we should go back to Burkina to convince the family, all understandably still in shock at their arrest, that neverless it was time to return. Radwan’s latest battle for Ewett had been won again.

We left smartish for Boni, where we stopped the night back at Fatimata’s camp where Betsy lives before continuing back to Burkina Faso and the refugee camp of Mentao.

I had CONAREF to face. Word had got back to me that the Burkina government authority managing the camps would be waiting for me!


Radwan Ag Ayouba in Boni

PS- The Malian TV journalist never did follow up on the story.

I heard from him next 2 days after the arrest and not since.