We awoke to find it was Bamako Day. Bamako is a sometime home for me, Paris was once my home too. We’re going to Bamako in January, Petra and I and a few new chums.
Weirdly, the night before Bamako morning, as Petra and I were wandering home from King’s Cross along the Caledonian Road discussing the trip to Bamako and mulling over the “War”, as you do, wondering what to call it these days, when it actually started, whether it was an “it” or a “them”, reminiscing over where we’d been for the great battles – “Republique and Bastille” thrust I, “King’s Cross and Tavistock Square” parried Petra. As we neared home all of a sudden we had a stange sensation that we were being followed.
Bamako day confirmed our suspicions.
A Tale of Two Cities: “Same same but different”
After the shock the calm. My first thought was not for the many friends I have in Bamako. Of course there were no “I’m safe in Bamako” tags on Facebook but it was highly unlikely anyone I knew would be in one of the most expensive hotels in town. Although this attack would again set back the country, its peace process and its desperate need for tourism to return, and although again I would be called upon to explain to family, friends and interested parties why I was still going to be travelling out across the Sahara to Bamako in January, and why it was still “safe”, I felt a strange sense of calm. “‘Ere there be a silver linin’ on th’m th’re loomin’ black clouds!”
OK so we were being followed alright, but their aim was bad – again! By two months and 5000 miles this time! Secondly I had my answer ready prepared like a Blue Peter model: Paris! “Paris/Bamako” I could declare, “same same but different” as they say in Cameroon.
Two capitals, two continents, many common denominators reducing to one: people were killed. An attack in Africa will be seen as an attack in Europe, “my” people in Europe will see “my” people in Africa are just as bewildered, the victims the same in their randomness, the perpetrators the same, the causes and the politics the same.
A stupid lunatic or a smart bomb, what is the difference? Each is a random attack on a random section of humanity, on humans’ freedoms to live, move, travel and just be where we need to be, whether in Paris or Bamako or Syria. Does it matter which individual pulls the trigger, or which politician sanctioned the bomb or who gets killed? What relevance is it if the dead are Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees, What Are These or Christmas Trees? Bang! Boom! Every loud noise, every death a consequence of failed politics, failed wars, failed ideologies, a failed international community and the failure of people to put humanity before self interest.
Attacks on “our” way of life, “our” freedoms, “our” democracy, “our” secularism or “our”religion by an alien fanaticism will be seen as the same as attacks on theirs by the same thing, that there is no possessive “ours” or alien “theirs”, there is only and simply ours.
As a professional traveller who has had others’ safety foremost in my mind for ten years (and with a 100% success rate on this account), it has always been clear to see that the risks to us all, wherever we live, wherever we travel, wherever we happen to be are the same: a night out in Paris, the tube in London, a view of New York, a school anywhere in the US, a market place in Nairobi or a hotel in Bamako – the wrong place at the wrong time could be lethal, and it doesnt matter if you are brown, white, black, or yellow. But these random times and places were no way near as lethal as the road just ahead, right in front of you, now. Keep your eyes squarely on the road, travel with knowledge and experience, and you are extremely likely to be OK, as you are most days of your life. One day will be the final one, but planning around it is impossible whether in Paris or Bamako or somewhere inbetween.
Of course I was in shock still. The day progressed in familiar fashion and I slowly slunk back out of my delusion. Facebook produced no Malian flag, though few Malian friends seemed to mind, even those so recently painted red, white and blue. Back in the real world “our” existential security was talked about while the French justified their very real military occupation of the region with a “voyez -vous” and a “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”. The terror, the terror!
An evil (and dead) one-eyed mastermind was resurrected, foreign – as in not Malian – nationality tallies were given significance to draw conclusions as to who might have pulled the triggers of which masters serving which purpose and which failed intelligence. Poor aid workers just doing their jobs, poor business men and women and poor UN staff. Bewildered Malians looked on, too random, too-wrong-place-wrong-time to be significant, though some wrong-place-wrong-time bystanders were lucky enough to be a few meters away and recount the Laurel and Hardy as 007 terrorist assault on the Hotel Raddison. Their morning chit chat over tea interupted by a man jumping out of a car with a gun, opening out his case on the dirt to chose which toy to use. He went for the grenade first, pull and fling, BANG, the sleeping guard never awoke, then another bang bang and the poshest hotel in town is theirs. Laurel plays Russian Roulette with anyone who can’t recite from the Qur’an while Hardy has a scout around. They kill 19 people. They have 120 hostages. Jesus wept! Allah Akbar! This is going to be a bloodbath! Paris/Bamako, same same but different. Just shut your eyes!
Only this time, thankfully, it was a different story…
In the end the attack was a Malian classic. The rampage and carnage didn’t happen. Nine hours after the initial shock all hostages are freed unscathed. Oddly no military put itself up as the heroes of the day, saving the world from another Paris tally. Initially it seemed that the French and US special forces were helping out the Malian military, but later news just reported that the Malian military were managing everything themselves. They did well. They avoided another Paris. See! You are safer in Bamako!
How far the military have come since Mali’s national crisis began with the massacre of scores of their personnel at another of my one time homes, Aguelhoc, in January 2012, when they ran out of bullets during an attack by AQIM (Al Qaeda In The Islamic Maghreb) on their garrison closest to AQIM’s long-term hangout.
That slaughter of Malian soldiers sparked a bulletless military coup d’etat in Bamako two months later, the coup prompting all state authority to abandon the north leaving the population bulletless in an area the size of Spain, the bulletless withdrawal led to the inevitable bulletless rebel take over of half the country in 3 days. Rebel “Azawad” was then quickly usurped by an AQIM “non” to Azawad. Their dudes in place and others flooding south out of the desert meant the country was now not only divided but also invaded and occupied by a foreign force, all in the Malian way: bulletlessly.
And now, Bamako day, the Malian military had avoided carnage in Hotel Raddison with only a few bullets. Lucky there weren’t the ten attackers we first thought or things could have gotten close. Malians seemed stunned. Not in a decade of Ramadans would they have expected such a successful turn around and triumph from their security force, four years after Aguelhoc. Or diid the terrorists catch the Malian flu themselves and run out of bullets themselves?
Or, more hopefully, perhaps the guys with the guns became conscious, knew they were finished and rather than booking more problems in the soon to come after-life, just gave up. They were hopelessly doing a job, why complete it when you will never see your employer again? Whatever it was, it was a miracle, a blessing in disguise and indeed the day had had a silver lining to hold onto! But no one seemed to notice.
Soon it was back to reality, back to Paris, back to the real war in our back yard and back to Rupert Murdoch’s existential fear that “1 in 5 Muslims want to kill us”.
Maybe I was living in a bubble. I wondered about unfollowing 1 in 5 of my Malian friends, just in case I’m being too trusting.
Which reminds me, back to that feeling of being followed… (coming soon).