Warnings coming out of the desert and out of the blue
Back at the flat on The Caledonian Road, the night before Bamako morning, Petra and I wander over to Africa in our discussion on the war.
From 2004 to 2007 I travelled west Africa and eventually left behind my life as an actor to set up From Here 2 Timbuktu. I wanted to show travellers the kaleidoscope of random places and communities I had discovered over a lifetime of travelling in Africa. My first official group trip was to The Festival In The Desert, in Timbuktu in January 2008.
After trekking along the Dogon Escarpment and a delicious journey up the river Niger by traditional “pinasse” we arrived in Timbuktu for the festival when I received a message from a travel industry colleague telling me the British Foreign Office had put a travel alert on the Festival. She gave me the personal number of the British Consulate representative in Mali. I called and left a message saying I was taking 14 tourists, predominantly British, to the festival and needed more information. I found an email address and another telephone number and communicated the same. I got no reply.
Timbuktutians were confused. The authorities and the festival organisers knew nothing. Al Qaeda? Here? No way. And why would Tuareg rebels attack a Tuareg festival that celebrates their own culture that their rebellions seek to protect? Besides there was military protection as every year, planes circulating, normal precautions for a festival in the middle of nowhere, how would they get through?
I put the situation to my group, unanimously they had felt very safe all trip and opted to go to the Festival. We partied in the dunes for three days. Tinariwen, Salif Keita, Tartit, camels and Tuareg looking magnificent in their bright coloured robes and flashing silver swords.
This was my second time to the festival. The Tuareg – the famous “Blue people” of the desert for their robes of indigo that colour their skin – intrigued me, but I found them distant and I wanted to know more. So after my group left I decided to travel deep into the desert to their heartland in the north. I found Sarid in Gao who agreed to take me to his camp 500kms across the desert near a place called Aguelhoc.
Paradise found: Aguelhoc January 2008
Aguelhoc, or Adielhoc, means “that place over there” and indeed it is as random a place as any, 500kms of desert piste north from the city Gao.
I wanted to see behind the veil, witness the little festivals or random parties that spring up at this time of year, the dry cool season when nomads are settled at home. It’s a time to share stories and music. These gatherings were the origin of the Festival In the Desert. For two weeks I lived with Sarid and his family, wandering their desert, with camels, goats and sheep, bathing in azure blue spring pools in the mountains and dancing to electric guitar blues under canopies of leather and stars . On all my travels I had never been anywhere so homogenous, one people, one culture living how they had for hundreds of years with only tunes coming out of mobile phones and a Toyota Landcruiser the signs of the real world.
On leaving Aguelhoc and travelling back across the desert to Gao Sarid was concerned at my silence. “Gaye Gaye” – the Tuareg have never quite got my name right to this day – “why are you silent? are you sad?”
Ha! I was ecstatic. Aguelhoc was very special. From Here 2 Timbuktu was going to work. No one on earth could offer this! But my confidence had a strange sadness to it. This mind blowing desert, these extraordinary people in their robes, their pastoral idyl, this biblical paradise, this intense peace and happiness – it was too perfect, was it real? Could it possibly last?
The Blue People are Red Zoned
Over the following two years I returned to Aguelhoc three times, freely moving with Sarid and his family or with small groups of tourists until the warnings began to fulfil themselves. Kidnappings of Spanish NGO workers in Mauritania, French ex-pats and uranium mine contractors in Niger. It turned out that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had had a camp near Alguelhoc for some time but it had suddenly become active. My way to Aguelhoc was barred, my family could no longer guarantee my safety there, it was too remote and the Malian authorities would not let me north into the desert anyway.
By October 2011 northern Mali had been cut off to tourism for two years. Western governments had red zoned the north and consequently tourism, the country’s main form of external income, had pretty much died. In the desert it was non existent.
These travel alerts helped no one. They were unspecific and painted vast regions with one brush. The risk to a westerner was of kidnapping for ransom but the actual risk to tourists was so small it was pretty much negligible. Kidnappings are about money and as such have to be planned, the nationalities known (only certain countries pay) and the kidnappers escape certain. Of the people kidnapped most were French, nearly all were NGO or ex-pat workers, and all were taken from extremely remote desert or border areas.
Tourists are not good targets because their movements are too difficult to predict, they are just passing through any given place, they arrive suddenly and are usually gone within a couple of days. Warning tourists away from a whole country when the risk is random or in a very specific area is like warning people not to go to France because a tourist is killed in a village in Germany, or warning people away from the US because of gun crime. That information does not protect you, it merely makes you fear the infinitessimally small risk and destroys local economies.
A tourist was only ever at above normal risk in certain remote desert border regions, the sorts of place you’d always be to some extent vulnerable as these are uncontrolable territories, the sort of place you could only get to with guides who knew the area, the sort of place the guide wouldn’t and couldn’t take you to anyway if there was an abnormally high risk.
The warnings put the tourist at more risk because of crying wolf. When you are constantly going in and out of supposed red zones and there is nothing about them that makes you feel unsafe you have no way of judging risk when it is there.
Freda to Timbuktu, October/November 2011
In September 2011 I had an enquiry from Freda Fleischer: “Dear Guy, I want to go to Timbuktu, can you take me? I read it might be dangerous, what do you think? Freda. PS I’m 90.”
Freda’s email required a direct response:
“Dear Freda, Yes I can take you, no it’s not dangerous, or no more than anywhere else. There are issues in the very north but they have don’t touch the interior of Mali or the route of our trip. Congratulations on reaching 90. I’ve managed 40! Let’s celebrate in Timbuktu!”.
Just before Freda set off from England I was travelling overland to Mali through Morocco when I pulled in for a coffee and saw, before a stunned, shocked and silent crowd, Gaddafi being murdered on television. This event was so seismic it would change everything, but no one could have predicted how quickly and how drastically.
Freda knew a thing or two about travelling so was not too concerned. She came and caused a sensation all over Mali, which like all of Africa, reveres age. For Freda it was a symbolic journey. Her partner had recently died. They had travelled together to 64 countries and Timbuktu had always been on their list as the ultimate travellers’ destination.
When we got to Timbuktu I was not worried. By this time I was very used to organising groups and taking the tiny risks that were there into account. I knew where our threat was based – very close to Aguelhoc in the mountains about 900kms to the north east, a 24 hour journey away. Our group were not high risk targets. We were British and Australian, countries that don’t pay ransom. I was aware of how an attack could be possible. They had to be planned, they needed good and concrete knowledge of who they were taking or they will be risking all for worthless goods. It could only happen where there was no chance of being stopped, going in or going out. You don’t go randomly trying to tourist spot in the sanddunes.
But these were uncertain times post-Gaddafi. To ward off the random risk of wrong place and wrong time we avoided the conspicuous town centre hotels, we stayed in a small auberge south of Timbuktu secluded in the outskirts between the city and the river. An attack on us would have to come through the city, past the military camp, and out the southern side. The’d have to know exactly where we were and if they knew that they’d know who we were, which meant they’d know there was no money in us, and then with their worthless goods they would have to go back through the city to escape back to the desert to the north.
We were in Timbuktu for three days. We strolled the markets, had a guided tour, eat and drank out in the restaurants and bars and on one evening we rode camels out north into the desert to stay with a Tuareg family I know and had goat cooked in the sand, women’s Tinde music and slept out in the open to ride back into town in the morning. I was more confident about our security throughout than I was of staying on my camel.
A week after we left Timbuktu some tourists pitched up – a Dutch couple, a Swedish motorcyclist, a South African and a German. None of them had ever been to Timbuktu before though all were well travelled. They arrived on public transport without guides. They stayed in The Sahara Passion Hotel on the north edge of town, probably recommneded by the Lonely Planet Guide for its views from the roof of the sand dunes of the Sahara to the north.
The attack happened at 1pm on a Friday, when the city was in the mosque for the most important prayer of the week and was over 5 minutes later. The German resisted and was shot dead, the Dutch woman escaped. It took the Malian military an hour to give chase. This was the first and only time anything like this has had happened in Timbuktu.
Some years later I asked Freda what she thought about my reassurance of security. “I was safe. Luck of the draw my dear.” In 1938, so as not to draw attention to their departure, Dr Freda Fleischer’s father put her and her siblings on the slower cross country train from Vienna to London rather than the Orient Express.
Paradise Lost: Aguelhoc 2012
The Timbuktu kidnappings were the first time Mali had been hit deep within its borders. Al Qaeda In The Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were responsible. It was a sign that something had changed.
As it had done every year since 2008 and those first warnings, The Festival In The Desert, with Bono attending, took place without incident in January 2012. Two days after the festival finished the first shots rang out in the far north in a new Tuareg rebellion ignited by the fall of Gaddafi and the return from Libya of former Tuareg rebels. Aguelhoc was the scene of an attack by rebels on its military base. Days later a second attack from AQIM ended in the massacre of all the Malian military. They ran out of bullets.
By this time France and the US had had military bases in Mali for about 5 years to help train the military in counter terrorism, yet no one knew that the Malian garrison closest to AQMI’s main camp in the mountains by the Algerian border had no bullets.
The Aguelhoc massacre infuriated the military, there were demonstrations in Bamako and a coup d’etat. All authority withdrew from the north – police, gendarmes, military, governors and politicians all fled leaving just the population behind. Tuareg separatist rebels swept down and took the north of Mali in 3 days without a shot being fired. But AQIM had already arrived, they were stronger and better supplied – no one backs a rebel – and the rebels were forced to give way. Mali was divided, occupied and centre stage of the latest act of the War on Terror. Other than those in the masscare of Aguelhoc, no bullets had been fired.
I have been back and forwards to Mali throughout the crisis and post French Intervention since 2012. On the ground, in the streets of Bamako or Timbuktu amongst the population you would not know this country was in crisis. The only sign of crisis is there are no tourists, and the UN have taken over big hotels and heavily secured themselves within. But anyone can go and sit in the bar by the Sahara Passion hotel.
The outside world began to leave Mali behind back in January 2013 following the French intervention that pushed the AQIM affiliated groups out of Mali back to Libya. We were all hoping silence on Mali would soon bring the tourists back.
Now Mali has bounced back onto the international stage with the recent attack at The Raddison Blu Hotel in Bamako. I was in Bamako in February, I will be there in January. I was no more at risk than you who are reading this and may never have been. I have been to the hotel twice. Nice pool.
Where do we go from here?
In 2013 I met some English tourists, twin sisters and their brother, in the desert of Mauritania. A week later the twins were killed on the dual carriageways of Morocco, possibly the best roads I know in Africa. They are the only tourists I have ever met or known to have had an accident in Africa. They died the way we are all always and everywhere most likely to die on any of our travels.
What should Petra and I do? We are planning a life that will base us near Kings Cross in London, The Atlas mountains in Morocco, Bamako and Timbuktu. It seems wherever we go trouble is sure to follow behind.
Was I at any more risk in Aguelhoc in between 2007 and 2010 from its attack in January 2012 than Petra was in London on 7/7? Was I less secure in Timbuktu in November 2011 on the south rather than north side of town than I was looking out from Windows On The World restaurant in New York in June 2001 rather than at 9am on September the 11th? Is Paris safer than Bamako? If the threat in Timbuktu was pervasive and general how come I have been to Mali and Timbuktu very publicly with large groups every year since 2006 but people who had never been before become the first ever to be kidnapped?
We travellers of the world are praised for our resilience at home, going back to work, Americans flying, Londoners using public transport, Parisians back on their streets in defiant demonstration and going back to the bars and clubs to party.
But a trip to Africa? The praise, encouragement and defiance turns to alert, better to stay away, you can’t be sure, there is a risk. Red zone it.
No. We will hit the road to Bamako in January, or come to The Festival On The Niger – a huge festival in southern Mali that takes place every year, without incident, crisis or no crisis. I know my way I trust my people. I know that at any given moment at any given spot on the road from London to Timbuktu my clients and I are more at risk from another traveller on the road coming the other way concentrating on something else rather than his road ahead when we happen to be passing by.