CONAREF ban me from entering the Burkina Faso refugee camps

Before I take you on from Boni in Mali across 90kms of sahelian bush around about 16 Feb 2014, to Burkina Faso, Djibo and the Mentao refugee camp with Radwan after his return from Timbuktu, post arrest and liberation, to talk to the family about returning back again with him to Timbuktu and their land of Ewett, let me remind you of the context that I was aware might greet me in Burkina Faso. 


A week to 10 days previously, when I was en route to the refugee camps for the first time from Bamako, I had been alerted by an incident that happened to Hannah, a tourist client of mine, that I might run into problems at the Mentao refugee camp with the Burkina police and CONAREF, the Burkina Faso authority in charge of the refugee camps.

Hannah had been in Burkina and the camps with guides and friends of mine for about a week. During this time the Festival in the Desert came to town with their Caravan of Peace and she was now awaiting my arrival as she wanted to join the return of Radwan as she worked with refugees in Canada.

Hannah had called me as I was en route for the camp to say the Burkina police had taken her passport away and were accusing her of working with me to repatriate the refugees – crime of crimes! I assumed this was prompted by CONAREF. 

Oddly the police “knew all about” my project and had been following the movements of my Landcruiser “the doctor” that Hannah was using. Given I had not been to the camps for four months how did they know that the car was mine? Someone will have had to have pointed out that the vehicle Hannah was using was mine. The police for some reason thought I was already in the camps  – why would the police on their own suspect this? They reported that “I had no right” to take any refugees home. Again, this is not the Burkina police’s domain, it is CONAREF’s. Hannah and Mohammed were ordered to leave Burkina without returning to the camp and without taking anybody else with them. So they left for Boni, 90 kms north of Djibo in Mali, and we arranged to meet there

This had to have come from CONAREF, but where had the tip off to them come from? 

I had been aware that the rumour mill had been working overtime in the camps about a white man coming to take everyone home and I knew that there were certain interests inside and outside the camps who didn’t want me to succeed with my Radwan plan for their own self interest. Anyone profiting personally or politically from the refugees was against any return. People and families with a position of responsibility in the camps, perhaps getting paid, have an interest in the refugees remaining as back in their real world they have no position. CONAREF themselves will be without purpose once the refugees go home, the UN funds will stop, all the benefits of hosting refugees will disappear.

But I suspected a more powerful source. CONAREF had very specific information on me that had to have come from someone who knew my program well and had a personal interest for me not to succeed. Many other groups of refugees had already returned. This was not about CONAREF or the police not wanting individual families of refugees returning, it was about not wanting me to succeed with my own project.

Now, 10 days later, we were back in Boni, 60 kms from the Burkina border and 90 kms from the camp, freed from the gendarmerie and about to take Radwan and Ishmael back to Djibo and the Mentao camp to address the family.


I decided to go to Djibo with Radwan to test the temperature there for myself. We’d go  in “the doctor”  leaving Betsy behind so as not to make too much of an entrance first time round – Betsy pulls focus you know! Then if the family were agreeable to the return, once Radwan had rested sufficiently, we’d bring Betsy down from Boni so we could do a snatch and run job! 

Mohammed, Radwan, Ishamael, Hannah and I left Fatimata’s camp in Boni and set off in the doctor, leaving the strange mountain outcrops of Mali’s own ‘Monument Valley’ behind us to cross the flat Sahelian bush. No tarmac roads here, just track. So many pistes, always take the most used and the middle one, and keep heading south. In 5 hours we hit Djibo, Burkina Faso.

We stopped at the gendarmerie in town to register our arrival. No one seemed to recognise or register us. I asked our friendly gendarme if I was ok to take Radwan back to the camp or did I need to register first with CONAREF? No I was told, as I had informed them, and “you are staying in Djibo aren’t you?” 

“Of course” 

Our gendarme was smiley and genial, he was happy that I’d paid the gendarmerie the respect of registering with them first, and he excused me registering with CONAREF as he could see the old man would be tired, I could pass by them in the morning. He looked out of the doorway to see Radwan being helped out of the car. “What is he doing?” 

I walked over to the car. Hannah told me Radwan wanted to speak to the gendarmes. What? We don’t want to speak to ANYONE if we don’t have to. We just need to get to the camp as quietly as possible. Radwan was now doing his usual distinctive gait: after 10 meters of stumbling forwards with his stick he sits in a heap on the ground wherever he is to recover before hauling himself back up and plodding on. Now he was right in front of the doorway to the gendarmerie sitting on the stony ground shouting in Tamashek something about an identity card.

We explained to Radwan that he didn’t need an identity card here, he had his refugee “attestation”.

Radwan barked out that he was no refugee, he wanted a Malian ID card, he was going HOME!

My friendly gendarme told me this wasn’t on. The gendarme couldn’t have an old man sat like this in front of the gendarmerie discussing identity cards. It was to us, young men, to do the work, the old man must be at ease in the car. If he needs something we can go to him. I explained that he had done this of his own will, that he had gone a bit funny and we agreed he should return to the car. 

A far cry from the gendarmes that greeted Radwan at Timbuktu I thought.

We all helped Radwan back to the car and set off for the camp.

Back at camp the family were, of course, delighted to see Radwan and Ishmael and greeted me warmly. Radwan’s ordeal in Timbuktu was probably worse for them here than it was for us. The talk talk in the camps will have wound them up to a frenzy, and I’m sure at moments they had doubted me.

We had milk – Nedo powdered milk sadly, not the fresh cow’s milk of Ewett –  and later tea, while people came by to greet Radwan.

I was a bit restless, worried about the car being visible at Radwan’s camp in broad daylight. If CONAREF got wind they’d ignore what the gendarmerie told me and use this as all they needed to give me a problem. With all these people coming and going greeting Radwan I decided to go back to Djibo and see CONAREF. When it was dark I could return to the camp and no one would know.

So I made my excuses and Mohammed and I went back to Djibo to see CONAREF.

In the CONAREF office only two lowly staff were on and they seemed unmoved and ready to shut up for the night. This was good. Perhaps they weren’t aware of my name and I could get away with registering my arrival without seeing the boss, Toué, who I knew to be difficult at best. They each looked at my passport, took down my details. They asked what I was doing. I told them I was here with a tourist client. That I had brought back an old chief who had been to Timbuktu and I had dropped him off at Mentao camp.

They quizzed me a bit about where I had met up with Radwan but I was able to claim, almost truthfully, that I had just bumped into him in Boni and he had asked for me to take him to Timbuktu.

Suddenly a little prickle. “Why hadn’t I sought their authority to take him back to the camp today?” I explained what the gendarmerie had said.

“Where was I staying?”

With friends in Djibo town (experience had taught this was the correct, if false, answer).

They had nothing. I was to come by in the morning.

Outside Mohammed was waiting for me. 

“Let’s go to that bar of ours and wait for nightfall”, I said.

“I know a better one, it’s more secluded for the car”.

We rolled into Tity’s bar –  a little off the main drag out of town to take our sundowner. Tony – my alcoholic Tuareg friend – was inevitably there. Word of Radwan’s arrest had of course buzzed around the refugee camp.

“Guy, how can we go back when even old Radwan gets arrested.”

“That’s exactly how the people who do these things want you to react.”

“But we have no choice. There’s clearly still insecurity.”

“ At root, what happened to Radwan wasn’t about insecurity, it was about money. It’s authorities profiting from the situation. This is the Mali of old that you know very well and it’s back in control and it will ever be thus under a corrupt system. 

“The thing to remember about what happened to Radwan and Ishmael is that they were reasonably quickly released. This shows that yes they can arrest you for nothing, and they will, but if you are innocent, if they have nothing on you, if you haven’t held arms, if there’s no proof there’s nothing they can do.” 

“It’s a risk”

“Yes of course but…” My pet subject, risk. I continued, pushing the boat out a bit: “I don’t understand you guys sometimes. You take a huge risk in leaving your country in the first place. You put everything you have at risk: your education, your homes, your animals, your jobs… everything, to leave. I understand, you fear for your lives so these risks seem worth taking. But now to go home you expect it all to be made up for you like a bed of roses. The risk to your lives has gone, but you search for the slightest reason to tell yourselves that risk is still there . Meanwhile the risks you take towards the things that make your life your own – your home, your education, your jobs, your community – are huge and increasing all the time. 

“The plain fact is that the UN, ECOWAS, the African Union etc are not primarily concerned with you, they are there to help the state, they are unions of nations not peoples. At some point, whether it’s now or a year or ten year’s time you are going to have to go home, and this will involve a risk whether the UN take you back or you go yourselves. But the longer you leave it the more you are going to lose, in my mind. Can you afford to leave this decision to Mali or these institutions who do not have your best interests as their primary concern? It is time for you, the refugees, to forget politics, forget the MNLA, forget the history and do what everyone else in this crisis is doing: act in your self interest.”

I was being tough on Tony but he needed it. I knew Tony really wanted to go back, but I also knew he was the sort of person who will talk talk talk about returning but never will until he is led back by his hand. In Tony I saw the whole Tuareg dilemma. The security of the camp had institutionalised the refugees and the big wide world seemed a scary place.

On my journey over here from the UK, with all the time I had to think about the refugees, I had felt a rising frustration. I was frustrated with the terrible communal survival instinct of a people who throw everything away through fear. I know it is the history, what has gone before, that creates the panic, but for everyone to throw everything away for the fear of being in the few that get into trouble seems, on the community survival level, to be a disproportionate sacrifice to the risk. 

I found myself imagining London in 1940 and the consequences for Europe and the world if Londoners had abandoned their city, as Hitler wished, and fled the blitz. Even when the exactions by the Malian military against the Tuareg population were occurring in the 6 months after the French liberation the Tuareg would have been better off staying put despite the history of atrocities against them and despite the exactions that certainly did take place. Would more have died or been taken prisoner if the community had stayed? Unlikely and possibly less. It was easy for the Malian military to enter a village market, escorted by local militia and pull aside the three Tuareg in the market knowing no one else will mention anything as they disappear off in the pick up. But if there were 100 Tuareg in the market place it would not be so easy, the bully boys would not feel so strong and if anything did happen there would be witnesses to testify. They couldn’t round up quietly 100 people.

One reason of course that it is easy for the Tuareg to flee is that as nomads and with a history of persecution they are, so to speak, professionals! Furthermore, with nomadic genes the Tuareg are a people who are attached to place spiritually though not materially. In the desert it is not the specific place or town or village or house or even tent that they refer to as home.  Home is their family, their community, their animals and, in its general sense, the desert. This spiritual attachment they can take with them, the physical is not so important, thus my Londoners of 1940 analogy does not really work on a number of levels. Firstly Londoners faced a threat from outside the country, the Tuareg faced a threat from within. Secondly, Londoners needed to stay in place to preserve their country, their culture and everything they knew and to flee would have put all this in jeopardy, for the Tuareg their country had in some ways already abandoned them and, with the AQMI occupation of the north and the ethnically targeted exactions after the liberation, the Tuareg had to flee to preserve their culture and community.

Ironically the Tuareg, in their nomadic disrespect for borders that sees the entire desert as their boundless home, consider themselves the freest of all people even from the restrictions of a refugee camp. Their freedom is spiritually physical – it is of the desert – a liberty of the soul.  It does not so much matter where in the desert they are, just to be in the desert. 

One of the biggest complaints I came across in the camps was that they were not in their “climate” or “environment”. No one remarked that they missed Timbuktu, or their village, or their house. Their discomfort was primarily the different heat and the humid air, they were troubled by their alienation more than their exile. A nomad’s strength and resilience is thus also, in a world of borders and nations and private property, their Achilles heal: they are, at the same time, both always and never in “exile”.

It is thus perhaps inevitable that when one region becomes risky they will move to another that is not at the drop of a turban.(Sorry) It is only the complications of the modern world and the interests of states with physical borders that make them “exiles” or “refugees”. At heart, a nomad is at home wherever his family are, or wherever his animals are. Pewrahps this has something to do with why the Mentao camps don’t feel like your image of a refugee camp, because these people are professionals.

It was dark. Time to leave to go back to Mentao now as no one could recognise the car at night.

At Fatimata’s I feel at home. I have a few “homes” on my travel routes and with friends in Mali, but nowhere do I feel quite so at ease and looked after than with Fatimata. I have known her and her 7 children for about 3 years and since coming to the camps it has always been here that I feel most relaxed, inconspicuous, myself. And she makes a mean mango, tomato and onion salad, apropriately named Fatimata’s Salad. Sorry CONAREF I couldn’t come to Djibo and the camps without saying hi to Fatimata, Mariam, Abdullah, Fatim, Sarid, Mullay, Oumar.

Mohammed and I had a lovely evening eating, chatting, having tea, catching up on my “haj” as Fatimata calls my caravan idea. “No No No”!! She is not ready to go back to Timbuktu. Her two eldest daughters, Mariam and Fadi have work with one of the NGOs so they bring in between them a reasonable living of about €150 per month. If she was to return there is nothing for them at Timbuktu so they’d be much worse off. Another catch 22 that confronts the refugees.

Lying out that night under the intense night sky, a flimsy mattress and a sheet all I need as comfort from the elements, I pondered over the irony of my situation. At home and at ease though clandestine in a refugee camp. Here solely to help a family go home at my own expense and in the process creating huge suspicion both from refugees and the authorities supposedly there to look after their best interests.

I am happy here, and so are many of the refugees, especially the young, and this is part of the problem. For many it is like being at a permanent holiday camp. All your friends and cousins and brothers and sisters are nearby, families normally spread across a nation are all here together in a space 6kms x 1km. Back in July I took Fatimata’s eldest daughter, Mariam, back to Bamako to inscribe herself back at the university after a two year break for the coming months when she was expecting to return. After 3 days in Bamako Mariam was itching to get back to the camp, not because there were problems in Bamako but because she missed her friends, her family, her life there and the big wide open real world of the city she had fled was now strange and probably a bit daunting.

Politically this is a problem for the refugees too. Cocooned in their camps from the reality of Mali, abandoned by the outside world and forgotten by their country, their ideas of solutions to their situation tend towards fantasy. When I first arrived in the camps in I heard two ideas for their return: either when an independent Azawad was created, to which I replied then you’ll be here for many decades, or when the French military leave the MNLA (who most support now, though before the crisis their support would have been negligible) would go back to war against Mali, to which I replied that they’d be waiting at least ten years, perhaps more, as the French have not entered Mali to leave so soon that is for sure. Just like the British and US in Afghanistan, once in it’ll take a lot of peace to remove them!


In the morning I visited some friends quickly, dropped in at Radwan’s camp and then took Ishmael into Djibo to see UNHCR and CONAREF about returning the family.

UNHCR informed us that we had to go by CONAREF first, they being the higher authority. Really, what nonsense: a Burkina Faso government department, whose only raison d’etre is hosting refugees, has overall authority over refugees returning? Just another example of how the UN is set up so that it can only represent the interests of nations and not people.

We went onto CONAREF. Same two guys in the office.

Ishmael began to explain that we had come to find out what procedures he needed to follow for the family to leave the camp. He explained that I was a friend and I was going to take them home. Immediately the atmosphere stiffened The questions followed:

“Why hadn’t I mentioned this last night, I said I was here for tourism?”

“I am. I am with a client. But she is leaving from Ouagadougou. Once she has left I am going to take my friend back to Mali, as it’s on my way!”

Side kick got up and left the room.

Abas to Ishmael:

“What about security back in Mali? How would they get by? There is no assistance”.

Hmm. So CONAREF are aware that the UN are still not handing out assistance in Timbuktu! Even the UN pretend that they are. 

Sidekick comes back into the room and hands me a phone:

“Toué, our boss, he wants to speak to you”

“Good morning Mr Toué.

“Good morning, how are you?”

“Fine thank you. And you?”

“Fine thank you. You are banned from entering the camps”.


“You are banned from entering Mentao camp under any circumstances and if you want to take any refugees away you will need an order of mission from your embassy and will have to come to the office in Ouagadougou”.

He was practically screaming at me. No need to explain my mission, he clearly knew, or thought he knew, all about it and I clearly wasn’t going to get anywhere so I handed the phone back to side-kick as Toué continued his rant. 

I left the office determined CONAREF were not going to keep the upper hand. Ismael was with me, I had to take him back to the camp. Perhaps it was time to test this ban, and to test the resolve of CONAREF.

We returned to Mentao and explained what happened to the family. A discussion broke out about the refugees’ prisoner status. Radwan insisted I stayed for meat but I didn’t think I could. My deliberation was decided for me when Mohammed indicated that the vehicle sounds I could hear outside the tent were the police.

A couple of CONAREF guys ducked into the tent. Minutes later and Hannah, Mohammed and I were escorted to the police post within the camp.

Was it coincidence that as we arrived at the post Haima, the refugee head of site for Mentao north, who knew me well and was connected to a large and influential family that I suspected were behind  much of briefing against me, rolled in on his motorbike?

At the post, a large camouflaged net/tent/shelter, our passport details were taken. Police officers came and went, as did CONAREF representatives. Haima, friendly and in good humour, told me to go and see him when I was finished with the police.

After about an hour the pleasant police, having asked no questions, seemed to be wrapping up with our passports. I asked if I could take them back to be told that no they were going to the police commissariat in Djibo. No explanation given as to why we had to go there having been here. If they, like CONAREF, wanted to ban me from the camp then they could do that from here. Perhaps it was just all obstruction and time wasting.

So we were escorted to the Commissariat in Djibo town. Waited about an hour with our CONAREF friends in tow, eventually we were to be seen by the commissar. CONAREF accompanied us into his office.

He began directly with me. How often had I been to Burkina Faso? Often. How many times? Oh four or five times. “But Mr Guy there is no trace of these visits in your passport. No Visa, no entry stamps, no exit stamps”. 

“Oh Sorry. That is my new passport, my Burkina stamps and visa are in my old passport.”

 I got up and went out to the doctor and got my other passport from my bag.

As I walked back in holding another passport my CONAREF minder looked less assured. I handed the passport to the commissar, who flicked through, nodded and deciphered and handed my passport back to me.

“Well I see indeed you have been in Burkina and you have the stamps. You are welcome. As far as the camps are concerned that is CONAREF’s business, as for us at Djibo we have no problem. In future you must come and register with us.”

Walking back to the car after paying the police $2 each for the pleasure of stamping our passports I decided to settle for the day’s 1-1 draw. 

Bugger CONAREF. Same as yesterday, hang out till dark and then back to Fatimata’s, MENTAO sud. Home in prison. A stowaway in a refugee camp! What had become of me?

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

All quiet on the Burkina Frontier as Presidential Election Day takes place in Mali. Where is everybody?

Election day went by with hardly a ripple in the Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso, though the wind did pick up in the evening followed by a wall of sand and dust and a quick African storm.Apart from that, a lazy day was had by all.

The momentous democratic date in Mali’s history passed us by. Probably because no one seemed to care – either inside the camps or outside. No state functionary, no interim government minister, no UN monitors, no ECOWAS representative, no presidential candidate, no international or domestic journalists or media came in the lead up to the election nor indeed for the day itself.

No one seemed to know where they were to vote and nobody had their voting cards. Some had receipts which should deliver a card on polling day. At the Malian embassy in Ouagadougou a few days before the election the Ambassador was going through a few pages of electoral lists. He admitted the camps had all been mixed up and asked my friend to help identify those he knew and explain where they were.

One would have thought that camps of refugees would be the easiest place to hold a poll. All are already registered with UNHCR with their photocards that get them their 12kg of rice every month, all are in one place, all have nothing else to do. One would also have thought that a good poll in the camps would have been a good PR coup for the UN or ECOWAS or MISMA or the Mali state, a sign that unity was on the way, an olive branch to the displaced to say you count, to say your future is our future. The refugees vote is unlikely to swing the result, so what was there to lose? Not even Soumalia Cisse, the northern candidate most likely to challenge for the Presidency, who depends on the northern vote, came.

On the day, the polling station was 10kms from the Mentao camps in the nearby town of Djibo. So anyone who wanted to vote had to find 500cfa ($1) for their transport into town. Why could they not cast their vote on their temporary territory in the camps – it is more “Malian” than Djibo?

I went to the polling station at about midday on election day. There were 5 or 6 civilians sitting under trees, a pick-up full of 10 tooled up and armored Burkina policemen, two UNHCR vehicles with just drivers as far as I could see. I spoke to three people as they came out from trying to cast their vote. Between them they had about 15 receipts for voting cards. Not one had delivered a card. They were the few who wanted to vote, they returned to the camps without doing so.

I have heard that 50 Malians displaced in Burkina Faso managed to vote. On the national news on election night not a mention of the displaced persons or the refugees.

In the camp people fasted as it is Ramadan, women prepared the food, the children and the young and the men just idly fill their time, pushing back the boredom, wondering daily as they do what the future will bring.

Not many would have cast their vote anyway, “a waste of 500cfa” said Mamayiti. What would they be voting for? Who would they vote for? No one had come soliciting their votes, no presidential candidate had tried to address the “northern question” in any depth or with any seriousness in their campaigns.

All of course had mentioned the north, they had no choice: the northern question is the reason their country is in chaos after the biggest shock in their history since the arrival of the French colonial forces; the northern question is what led to ATT, the former President, granting Al Qaeda camping rights within Tuareg territory under the auspices of the USA and France which has produced the pretext for a new French invasion; here too was the domain of the drugs and contreband trade with its government and military backhanders.

All these things served to destroy the northern economy, its security and the fabric of its community which inevitably led to the rebellion that sparked the coup d’etat which permitted the subsequent “islamist” mafia invasion which knocked the Azawad independence claims off their perch.

It was this invasion that destroyed the Azawad independence claim of the rebels. Mali, Algeria, France and the US preferred Al Qaeda to occupy the north than some separatist rebels. With Al Qaeda in control, the western world can behave as it chooses.

Now most of the northern population of Mali is displaced. Furthermore it is since the supposed French “liberation” of the north  that the majority of refugees, especially here in Burkina, have left. The myth pedaled by all involved governments and parroted by their medias is that these refugees fled the rebels and the islamists, further compounding another myth that these are one and the same.

Nor should you believe the aid agencies who will claim they fled drought and food crisis too to top up their coffers. 

The reality is that they fled their own army, the Malian military. They fled the history of this army’s reaction to any rebellion at the outset of crisis in February 2012, a history every family remembers only too painfully and a history of which France is only too aware.

Then in April 2012 they fled after their military and police and gendarmes abandoned their posts and their towns and cities -Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal, Menaca, Hombori, Douentza – following the coup d’etat in March 2012, leaving the populations exposed to occupation by first the rebels and then followed swiftly by the mafia “islamist” forces coming in from the north.

But the biggest wave of flight came after the French liberation of their lands because it was this same Malian army – an army that was in such disarray in the lead up to the intervention that they were fighting each other in Bamako – that was then inexplicably left by the advancing French campaign to manage the peace. Given French awareness of the history of the Malian army’s response to the slightest rebellion, let alone a crisis that has ripped the country apart and brought it to its knees, this act, in my view, constitutes a war crime.

Let me just digress a bit here to state an important fact about the French liberation. I welcomed the French intervention as by January 2013 the Mali situation had been left by the international world to fester in inertia and something had to happen, but I also supported it because, as I have been saying since the crisis began, this whole thing – the drugs, the mafia, the islamists could have and should have been swept up and disposed of very easily by a highly sophisticated, desert trained French military, fresh from active service in Afghanistan and their training camps in Chad.

Moreover, north and south of the country were at last united in one thing – they were all glad of the help to rid the population’s number one enemy, the “islamist” forces. With these forces gone, Mali could begin to breathe again.

And then, just as with Afghanistan, they threw it all away.

At the point of French intervention all the “islamist” forces, none of them battle hardened as they’d never had to fight for any of their gains, were trapped south of the river Niger, out in the open with only one bridge crossing at Gao and a very slow ferry crossing at Timbuktu, both between 400 and 600 kms away. To get back to their stomping ground the islamists had to cross the river. The French had timed their intervention perfectly, this could be over in a month.

But, somehow, 2 days after the intervention began, the arch enemy, leader of the AQMI forces, Iyad Ag Ghali, the poison in the mix, the most detested man in both the northern and the southern populations, the Osama Bin Laden figure in the Mali crisis, was able, like Bin Laden had before him, to escape to the desert mountains and obscurity.

Iyad, as he is referred to locally, was able to drive the 600kms along the only tarred road, cross the bridge at Gao and disappear back another 500kms across flat and open desert to the north, to his fiefdom in Kidal in the same sort of time it would take a traveller in a hurry. Despite the drones, despite the French air force supposedly sweeping these forces up, despite the price on Iyad’s head, despite the very swift French troop deployment and despite all their intelligence networks that were already in place, France, like the US before them in Afganistan, had let their guy go.And now we hear very little about him.

This fact is never mentioned in reporting but spoken about all the time on the ground. Why has this not been pursued by the international media? So the French advanced to the north to the obscure mountains where war could be interminable, who could ever know what was happening there? And in the process they leave the Malian military behind in Timbuktu and Gao to manage the peace.

After the “liberation” of Mali, the re-occupying Malian army began “sweeping up the islamists”. This entailed being escorted by locally activated Songai militia (set up by the former President for exactly the occasion of a successful rebellion) who knew the region into market places and remote villages, abducting and killing, imprisoning and ransoming any light skinned person – and they were easily spotted as they were few and far between – mainly cattle herders and shepherds, those left behind to guard the animals. This obviously induced further terror in any clear skinned Malian left in the Gourma, Timbuktu and Gao regions of Mali encouraging them to flee and the refugees to remain in the camps. The result of this fear campaign plus the rushed forwards election is that there are very few Tuareg left now to vote in these regions.

Again, in Mali’s half century of history, the north has erupted, again the north/south fault line is at cause, again the northern population are the victims, again families find themselves repeating flight from their country. And yet no politician has the balls to talk about the north seriously, with equanimity, with concern, with truth.

No pressure from the outside world is brought to bear on Mali to finally resolve its northern question: oil is more important than people.

The truth is that children born as refugees in the early 90’s are now finding themselves refugees again in their early twenties, their lives as students, newly weds, wannabes all in tatters, their dreams a distant fog. Some of these students have parents who themselves will have been born displaced.

For all, the fault lies with the politicians and the state that has for decades failed to protect its Tuareg people. The question of the north is also why these old imperial forces are back on their ground now, with their new imperial intentions, though it is not to help the people that they have come but for the wealth that lies here. The US and France backed up doggedly as ever by the UK, are taking back control of Africa’s future. We are at the beginning of Africa’s re-colonization by western economies that need African resources to get them out of their economic mess. We have created the war and now, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, we will provide the security, bringing in new exploitation – sorry exploration – and “free market capitalism” so that West Africa can do a Latin America of the 70’s, a UK and Asia of the 80’s, a Russia of the 90’s, an Iraq and an Afghanistan of the 00’s.

And the enemy this time? The foe we are protecting ourselves from? Not Al Qaeda – that is a smoke screen, a phantom, it is not really there. No our real fear, here in Africa, this time is China. I’ll leave that one with you for another day!

So the US and France have insisted on this election now, before Mali has had a chance to breathe, to get itself together, have a conversation and debate its future. The purpose is for the old order to be put back in control, the old status quo that plied their “haram” trade before will allow the new forces to ply theirs now. The old European model of democracy bequeathed by France at independence will be re-instated with a majority (ah the democratic curse of the majority that allows a big people to shit on a little within the constitution!) “elected” president with whom we can at least all start doing business again.

It doesn’t matter to the outside world whether the restored democracy is good for Mali, whether it will resolve the north/south divide, whether it has legitimacy and whether it will bring prosperity and peace and equality and freedom to the people of Mali. What matters is that we have a man we can do business with, and in Ibrahim Boubacar Keita – or IBK as all refer to him in line with the tradition of acronyming their presidents’ names – who will win as he is the French choice, we will have that.

People in the camps are beyond hoping for anything from their future, beyond expecting the UN or the US or France or ECOWAS or the EU or the AU or the Mali state to help them as they face repeated cultural extinction, ethnic cleansing, exile or a return as guests in their own country, on their own land.

The majority of the refugees in Burkina Faso – as with those in Mauritania, Niger, Algeria – before this crisis would have counted themselves as Malian 100%. Very few would have wanted the rebellion, as few have ever wanted any of the rebellions, but none of them have been given any support from their country and now they don’t know who they are. They know they are Tamashek but they don’t know what nationality they are. My friend Randi, who spent her first 6 years as a refugee in the 90’s rebellion and is now a student absent from her studies in Bamako, told me “I want to be Malian, my life as a Malian now seems like a dream. Now Mali doesn’t want me. So who am I now?”

For me the biggest scoundrels of all – those who really have no excuse, those who should be protecting the rights of the weak, the poor, the dis-enfranchised and the exiled, those who should be looking to tell the world of the truth of the situation in Mali are the vast majority of the international journalists and media. Throughout 2012 they helped create the fog for war by their ignorance of the issues, their absence of interest and their acceptance of government propaganda from wherever it came.

This media is now contributing to the western agenda with their lily livered levels of enquiry. Throughout the crisis they have parroted US and French policy, they have said what they are expected to say, they have investigated nothing, turned over no stones, enquired nowhere beyond the remit of their fighting masters.

Point me to an article written by one of the embedded US ex-Peace Corps turned journalists or photographers who hang out in Bamako that tries to understand Mali from the northern perspective. Show me where the BBC or CNN or any other major media channel doesn’t use the same terminology as their government’s press briefings, that doesn’t make the same mis-leading mistakes, calling rebels “jihadists” and mafia “islamists”, labeling Mali as Afghanistan or Somalia before it is time, describing its past as “a shining example of democracy in the region”. Who, other then Jeremy Keenan (in his books The Dark Sahara and its sequel, The Dying Sahara – and on questions the western narrative?

Albert Einstein said: “”The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything”. The media has much to contemplate on this in reference to Mali.

I am on the ground, as I have been on the ground in Mali, north and south, in the desert and the sahel since 2008. I have seen the inner workings of this crisis at first hand, I have called upon journalists for years to look under the surface and report it to no avail. I am seeing evil done and I am seeing a world “watching and doing nothing”.

I did come to the camps with one good piece of news about a project I left the camps back in May to pursue. I have been seeking help for the refugees to return home which has led me to some well connected and intentioned people linked up with the Festival In The Desert. Together we are planning a caravan of return which has received strong but as yet unconfirmed support within the UN. International and domestic artists are hoped to join the caravan to bring in, hopefully, some international media. We have a provisional date of November, but we need to see how events progress after the election. I left the camps in early May promising to fight for this, hoping to stage it before the elections but this would have been too soon. But this poor election show in the camps was exactly why we wanted to make our stance before the end of July.

My news was generally received well, but I felt a new dimension has come into play, a new doubt, a new worry. As Mufta Ansar said to me: “The return is good, we all want to return. But what after? What about a year’s time, or two year’s time, or even ten year’s time. In the 90’s my family returned twice only to have to flee soon again after they returned. If it is a return to be dumped in the same impasse we were in before, if we are are going to be back here again, why bother returning now? We’d be better off starting afresh elsewhere”.

Mufta is an important man in the community – not just the Tuareg community, for he lives in an area where the Tuareg are a minority: over the past 10 years he had financed and built a school, a health centre, community farming projects, irrigation schemes without a penny coming from the state. Now all is lost, he must begin again. “I am a Malian patriot, I loved my country but I don’t know anymore. I am older now, I have my children to think about. I cannot work the next ten years of my life to have it all taken away again. And so far I see no sign that anyone is going to do anything to resolve the problem, and if they don’t all this horror will come back to haunt us again”.

Mufta sits back in the moonlight and repeats a charming concept he has pondered with me before: “where is the world’s humanity?”.

How quaint! Mufta thinks the UN and ECOWAS and the AU were set up to safeguard humanity. He thinks the US and the EU guide their foreign policy and their war on terror and their hunt for resources along humanitarian principles. He thinks those journalists, those cameras, the Peace Corps volunteers planted in every village and those signs of USAID all over the place are all about witnessing and helping humanity in its struggle against poverty and oppression!

How naive he is! How naive am I? How naive are we all?

Mali’s Domestic Crisis Begins Now

With the deaths of the Al Qaeda In The Islamic Magreb leaders, Abou Zeid and Mocktar Belmocktar, one might be forgiven for thinking the Mali crisis was coming to an end.

But this is just the end of the beginning for Mali domestically. Now the foreigners are battling out the international story in the far reaches of the northern desert, Malians themselves are being left behind to work out their own national story, the story that began the crisis and that has been with this country since its inception.

What we have had up to now, really since the creation of AQMI back in 2002/3, has been an international issue that the Mali government has permitted to be played out in the northern half of the country so that Bamako could control the tinderbox that is Mali’s relationship with the Tuareg north.

As the French and Chadian armies sweep the AQMI mafia groups back to their adopted home in the Tuareg heartland of the Adar Des Iforas, the Malian army are inexplicably being left behind by the French campaign to reassert its own control, pretty much unmonitored over the liberated regions.

This is the military that crumbled before the MNLA rebellion that kick started the crisis, the military that enacted the coup d’etat that allowed the MNLA take over of the north and the islamist invasion, the military who recently had a pop at each other in bamako, and the military who have over the course of Mali’s history comitted atrocities against the northern population.

Now the international games of charades and musical chairs, of Al Qaeda, coup d’etats and islamist ideology, of acronym wars, of AQMI, MUJAO and Ansar Dine are coming to an end. Now we are back to square one. Mali and the Tuareg, north and south, black and white.

And the south is angry. You hear it in Bamako. And their military are back on the ground, in Timbuktu and Gao and the region south of the Niger and they are asserting their control.

People are disappearing. Military vehicles turn up at houses and in villages and are seeking people out. People bound and chucked into the backs of pick ups like “bags of rubbish” driven off into the night to disappear or be found with throats slit shallowly buried in the sand.

Not just anyone, just the light skins. Tuaregs and Arabs are being cleansed from the north of Mali. And it is working. The refugee camps in Burkina Faso are filling at a greater rate now than ever before in the crisis, by the people whose land has supposedly just been “liberated” by the French.

Here are some of the stories.

They do not need verifying, I know they are true. I know relatives and friends in the camps who are receiving the news on their phones. Everyone talks about the same names, the same stories, the people they knew, their brethren and kin.

Mohammed Lamine Ould Hammoudi   owned a cyber cafe, and director of a Qu’ranic school, Al Madrasser Nour El Moubine, stayed on in Timbuktu since islamists arrived he refused to join them, but with no one else in town using his cyber cafe.

When Timbuktu was liberated the Malian military turned up with French soldierstold him “you can stay chez toi, nobody will do you bad.” That night with his father and his 3 kids, Malian military personnel came to his house and took him away. In front of childrens, bound him and took him out of Timbuktu and killed him. Throat slit, shallow grave.

Ali Koubadi, very well known man from Timbuktu, very rich arab. Malian military arrive, he gave them 2 cows. That evening they came and threw him in a car “like throwing out the rubbish”. Killed.

This list is copied direct from someone collecting information on reports coming back to relatives in the camps.
A Tombouctou:

1 Mohamed Ag Mohamed Ousmane Ag Hama Ag Ihalissane dit Wague,

2 Mohamed Lamin Ould Hamoudi, Directeur de la Medersa Nour El Moubine

3 Mohamed Ould Tijani et d’autres corps non encore identifiés

4   Eljimite Ag Khaked (56 ans) et son fils

5   Biga Ag Eljimite (19 ans).

mercrdi 06 Février 2013 à Tombouctou, Mohamed Ag Mohamed Ousmane Ag Hama Ag Ihalissane dit Wagui, homme âgé de 65 ans et père de 11 enfants (06 garçons et 05 filles), a été arrêté par des éléments de l’armée malienne sous le Commandement du Colonel Sangaré et du Capitaine Konate, et exécuter sommairement

Mohamed Lamin Ould Hamoudi, Directeur de la Medersa Nour El Moubine

Mohamed Ould Tijani et d’autres corps non encore identifiés, tué par l’armée malienne et sa milice Gandakoy.

Dans la même ville de Tombouctou, fût découvert une fosse commune non loin de l’hôtel Azalai avec des corps dont certains identifiés et certains non –identifié.

L’une des dernières exactions commises contre les civils Touareg et Arabe date du 14/02/2013 à Tombouctou. Dans des circonstances qui restent encore à déterminer (aucun observateur indépendant n’est sur place), l’armée malienne a arrêté Eljimite Ag Khaked (56 ans) et son fils Biga Ag Eljimite (19 ans). Peu après, les corps des deux victimes ont été retrouvés en dehors de la ville.

Samedi les 16 février 2013 a Tombouctou

  1. 1Hama Ould Dahama, un grossiste arabe
  2. 2Ali Ould Mohamed Kobad, un commerçant et éleveur arabe
  3. 3Maouloune Fassoukoy, un ami songhaï,
  4. 4 Akassam Ag Himna


22 février 2013 tombouctou

Khaira Bint BABA, de la famille Boukhassy(prononciation approximative), 

La seconde se nomme

2 Koutah Bint MAHMOUD , de la famille Bougbeye.Toutes les deux victimes sont de la grande famille Berabich. 

  1. 5 A Douenza: Ould Douchy

5A Ber: Mohamed Ibrahim Ag Hama connues sous le nom de Daha

A Gossi, le 10 Février 2013, l’imam Mohamed Issouf Ag Attayoub et une autre personne dont on n’arrive pas à avoir le nom.

A Léré: le 15 février 2013 par l’armée malienne :

1-Moctar AG BARHA

2-Oumar AG AYAYE

3-Ibrahim AG MOSSA

4-Ibrahim AG HALAY

5-Mohamed Balla AG INTAMALOU

6-Houmaydi AG INTAHANA


8-Mohamed AG SOUKA




Personnes portés disparu :


A Gossi:

1.Alkhalifa Haidara,

2.Bada lamina Ould Taher,

3.Checkou Kounta,

4.Ahmed Ould Bakaye,

5.Med Aly;

6.Aboubacrine Ag Ayouba (14 ans),

7.Bachir Ould Hammar,

8. Fassil kountam,

9.Aghaly Ag Sidi,

10.Abdourazack Ould Yahia,

11.Mohamed Ag Issouf,


A Toya: Med Ag Atiyoub, et son frère Abdallah Ag Attiyoub

A Boni: Oumar Ag Koukou

A Wami sidahmad ag mohamed alamine

A Nara: Sergent de la Garde Nationale chef Arby ould Chaibani

A Kati: Sergent Wani Ould Oumar


Vendredi 03 mars 2013

Enlèvement de personne a bambara maoude dit ( hodarit)

et t out les boutique touaregs sont casse

1   Oumar ag sidi aly

2  ismail ag sidi aly

3 ?

4 ?

5 ?

In Bamako The Answer Is Clear

On the surface nothing seems to have changed in Bamako. The “souterama” buses jostle with taxis and motos, boys call on girls, and people greet, trade, and laugh as ever.

There are no signs in the capital telling you this is a country at war, with foreign fighters battling out the latest international war in the Adrar Des Iforas, a remote corner of their northern desert. And no wonder – it is far away, and to most people in Bamako it may as well be a foreign country.

Yet a persistent itch is back, irritating the skin of this divided country. Poke your nose into their current affairs and it soon becomes clear that the Bamakois of just a year ago – tolerant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-coloured – are unifying behind a worrying cry that Africa and the world have heard many times before.

The lyrics are old and have long been written in the country’s national slogan: “Un Peuple, Un But, Un Foi” – One People, One Goal, One Faith. Before, this slogan was repeated with a plea for unity in this historically divided country. Today there is something sinister in the cry, a tone that suggests “One Scape Goat” should be added to the slogan.

Although Malians in the south saw their army and political class wither away without a fight against the MNLA rebellion; although they openly acknowledge that their popular President ATT handed over his seat of power out of expediency and thus enabled the coup d’etat and the subsequent division of the country; and although they then all looked on exasperated as the unknown coup leader Captain Sanago, the weak remnants of government and a divided and demoralised military did nothing, and so permitted, the mafia terrorist (AQMI) allies of their former President, with his homemade militia (MUJAO), to take over the north from the secular separatists (MNLA) and threaten sharia law and the making of an Afghanistan of Mali, for the Bamakois there is only one culprit for their nation’s year of charades.

As their country is now gradually being liberated of its foreign jihadists by its colonial master, the people look within for whom to blame.

The answer is clear – it is a people with a separate history, a different tongue, and another colour. It is they who kick started the crisis, the usual suspects without whom none of this would have happened. “They” are the Tamashek, the so called Tuareg, the MNLA, as though these are one and the same. You can tell them by their skin: it is “les teints claires”. The answer is clear.

One thing that has returned to Bamako are international journalists, now interested in Mali with the excitement of war. But on their returns from reporting on liberated Timbuktu and Gao, they say they did not see these clear skinned faces.

That is because they have all left.

For oddly, despite the liberation of the north, the Tuareg are leaving Mali in greater numbers than ever before. Now even the poor who stayed behind to tend the animals when the islamists took over are filling the the refugee camps in Burkina and Mauritania. At the camp in Djibo in Burkina Faso 500 refugees per day are now arriving, more than ever before.

As for the first wave that came back in January when the rebellion began, so for the second wave in April who left when the coup d’etat happened, and so now for the recent surge as the French and Chadian forces disappear into the far reaches of the desert, it is the Malian military that people are fleeing.

“We welcomed the French war” explains Mohammed, a jewelry maker form Timbuktu in exile in Bamako “but we were better off before under the islamists. I am only now moving my father from Timbuktu. The islamists may have destroyed our dreams of independence, they may have imposed their sharia and banned our music and destroyed our way of life, but they didn’t kill us. And now in Bamako I cannot wear my turban. Guy, have you ever seen me without a turban? But now I am truly scared.”

If there are Tuaregs left in Bamako they dress down, they conceal their whereabouts, hide away their turbans and voiles. They hide their lives, conceal their identity, deny their culture and hush their tongues in their own capital city.

Meanwhile the Bamakois rehash the meaningless and incorrect slogan that became their county’s moto – One people, One Goal, One Faith.

As I leave Bamako for Burkina Faso I worry of Nazis and Jews, Serbs and Bosnians, Hutus and Tutsis.

I hope I’m being melodramatic.

The benefits of an armed escort to Bamako

I love Mali. However bad things get here on the uber political level, things on the ground remain the same: chilled, humorous and wonderfully naive. 

With the country now playing host to the latest western allies resource grab, sorry protection from extreme beards – Jesus what am I saying, sorry i don’t know what’s come over me, big breath, start that sentance again… With the country now playing host to the French military helping them liberate their territory of fundamentalist Islamist terrorists, I had been informed as I apporached the border between Mauritania and Mali that whiteys would have to pay for an armed escort from the border to Bamako.

Given that i have already claimed that the risk of kidnap is very small (see this post), and that I was going to be entering from the east of the country so over 2000miles away from where the nasties have been pushed back to, this wrankled with me a bit.

So i thought I’d seek out a remote border post where few people would cross, 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 had their own stamp.

After “keeping to any right hand track” for 60 kms we finally found Mauritanian Malga, the frontier village. The But the very genial customs guy who gave me my laisser passer (and took my word for the euro/cfa exchange rate)  


Throughout this crisis I’ve been seemingly flogging a dead donkey by claiming that although Al Qaeda affiliated groups control the northern two thirds of this vast land, in the rest of the country life goes on in as friendly and easy a way as it always has done. Of course, for outsiders i sound ridiculous. They 



French plan for Mali intervention not so “crap” after all.

I find myself in a strange position. At the outset of the Mali crisis I felt that the worst possible scenario was France getting involved on its own. After 7 months of abject inertia on Mali, the international community through the UN and the USA finally truly kicked Mali into touch till September this year when it announced that no international action would happen until then.

Did this stance embolden Iyad Ag Ghaly, the great strategist and leader of one of the groups, Ansar Dine, to decide to make a quick push west from their frontline of Douentza to Konna just 90kms from Mopti? He seemed to have been after Sevare airport. If the islamists had takenthe airport it would have meant the only airstrip to land troops being 600kms away in Bamako. Iyad, and the islamists would have been in a very powerful position with 8 months to go before the world was going to wake up. 

France seized the moment. It seems they saw that Ag Ghaly had made a strategic blunder. Or had he been lulled into a trap? News started coming in that all the jihadists from Timbuktu and Gao had come south towards Konna. They were out of the towns and had a long way back. So France stepped in, quickly mobilised special troops – serious hard nuts who were based in Chad – and aircarft. 

It seems they are attacking the front line and picking off retreating fighters. They have attacked in Gao, Kidal, Lere, Konna. 

And back in the towns – Timbuktu and Gao – there remain only footsoldiers and signs of desertions already. It’s is hard to verify, but I am being told by Tuareg in Burkina that they are hearing that people are smoking in the streets of Timbuktu.

Many seem to buying the AQMI line that France have opened the gates of hell on themselves. At the moment it looks more like the islamists may well have trapped themselves in no man’s land, and it isn’t at all clear that they have a route out now. Algeria, who hitherto have been stalling on any international involvement in Mali (principally because this would take control from them) seem to working in partnership with France. If so, perhaps the Algeria have decided to cut their ties to the islamist groups and wash their hands of them now. I hope so.

The only way to begin to work towards a lasting peace to the Mali crisis is to eliminate these phoney islamists. Only then can a resolution to Mali’s constitutional crisis begin to be a Malian solution for Mali’s problem. With the foreign islamists in the picture any negotiation which many have advocated would have meant negotiating Mali’s future with foreign and unwanted islamist fighters.

I feel that there is too much made about these islamists strength and jihadist intentions. I’ve never felt they were nearly as strong as the UN and US have made them out to be. They’ve been handed their strength on a plate. Until the crisis happened – and it wasnt they who launched it, they were opportunists on the back of the MNLA led Tuareg rebellion – very little anti-western jihadist rehetoric had comme out from these guys. And they have never been battle tested. There may be a few Mujahadine who have come in now, but their rank and file are footsoldiers who have had not much choice but to join up. 

If French troops can cause a serious dent in the leadership and the main jihadists – and they’ve already dented a good 10% – we may be watching a turkey shoot and a cake walk.


Security update for the Caravan of Peace and The Festival In the Desert

The Festival in the Desert organisers in consultation with the Burkina Faso government, have announced that the Festival In the Desert in Exile slot on the Caravan of Peace, 20-22 February 2013, has been moved to a location close to Ouagadougou to better guarantee the security of the festival.


The festival was to be held at Orsi in the north of Burkina Faso. 

While the islamists hold the region in Mali north of the Burkina border, an incursion into Burkina Faso by the islamists for an attack on the festival itself is unlikely (see below). However, Orsi was felt to be too close to the border with Mali and so to safeguard the festival it has been moved to a site close to the capital so the Burkina Faso authorities can better secure the festival.


This is a good move. Of all the sites of the caravan, Orsi was the closest to islamist territory. This makes the route of the caravan from Bamako to Segou and down to Burkina Faso for the Festival itself very secure all over.


Perhaps this is a good time to set out my thoughts on security issues in general for the route of the Caravan of Peace.


Of course I get asked a lot by friends and family why I am bothering to go to Mali and run a trip given that Mali is in political chaos and that a band of Al Qaeda affiliated terrorists control the north of the country and have a history of kidnapping westerners in the region?


The simple answer is that I am doing it because I feel safe. I have only felt unsafe once in Africa and I never want to go there again, and I certainly do not want to take anyone else there. If I didn’t feel the region of the caravan was safe I would not be running the trip.


The risk is undoubtedly there on paper, like the risk of a terror attack at a western airport is there. How significantly we assess that risk is largely down to our own perceptions and acceptance of risk.


Like at the western airport, the actual risk on the caravan of peace as I see it is small enough not to make me change my course. 


What is the threat?

Western tourists are warned not to go to the Sahara/sahel region of west Africa because there is the threat of being kidnapped by islamist groups who currently occupy the north of Mali. Since 2008 more than 20 westerners have been kidnapped. Currently there are 10 or so still being held.


My argument for why the caravan of peace is safe to join rests on my view that there is no longer a motive for the islamist groups to take more hostages. They have 10 that they are not getting money for and there are no negotiations on for ransoms as the game as changed and these groups now control the north of Mali. I will argue that their focus is now holding down what they have got against internal splits and preparing for a possible ECOWAS attack. Why risk potentially weakening themselves and inflaming the international perspective on Mali by taking hostages who will get them no money?


Hitherto nearly all the kidnappings have taken place in remote regions with no security, or where a couple of vehicles can go in and quickly take the hostages and flee back to the desert.  They have never attempted to attack festivals or to break through military lines to perform kidnappings.


Beyond the threat of kidnap there is no other significant threat to western tourists on the caravan of peace. Civil society throughout the route of the caravan is in tact, despite there being no real government in Mali and there has been no significant civil unrest.


Background to the kidnappings



I break the kidnappings that have taken place in the region since November 2008 into two groups. 


1) French nationals.

Roughly half of the hostages have been French. I believe that when French nationals are taken hostage the primary motive is political. There are currently 7 French hostages. There have been 4 or 5 other French nationals who have been kidnapped and either ransomed or they have died in rescue attempts.


The circumstances around French nationals being kidnapped are always a little murky and it seems that when French nationals are taken it is about the complicated relationships that France has in the region.


If I was French I would not be travelling in the region of the Caravan of Peace, even though I think the threat generally has eased off somewhat (see below), for French nationals the politics is too hot and so their security is too uncertain. I can still see a motive for islamists to take French nationals. My advice is stay away.


2) Other nationals. 

When other nationalities get taken hostage the motive seems to be money. It is this ransom money that has enabled these groups to amass weapons to be doing what they are doing now. Some European governments (Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland) have paid large ransoms. European nationals were reasonably high risk before the crisis but below I set out why I think they are less so now.


UK, USA and Australian nationals

These nationals are, in my view, the safest in the region as their governments do not pay ransoms. The UK has had one national taken – Edwin Dyer. He was in one of the first groups taken January 2009. A ransom was demanded, Britain refused and then the demand became release of prisoners in the UK, and still they refused, and Mr Dyer was executed. Edwin Dyer is the only hostage to have verifiably been executed. At this stage AQMI wouldn’t have known perhaps that Britain wouldn’t pay and to save face they had to go the distance – this was the beginning of their campaign and he was in a group with other nationalities whose governemnts did, it seems, pay ransoms. 


Since Dyer, no UK national has been taken. No USA or Australian national has ever been taken. 


I don’t think it is coincidental that it is these governments that do not pay ransoms. Together these nationalities, at a guess, probably make up easily half of the tourists and ex-pats in the region, so if the kidnappings were random or ideologically motivated then more of these nationalities, their governments being in the fore front of the war on terror, would have been taken one would have thought.


The problem for AQMI etc with taking one of these countries’ citizens is that it all becomes a lot more serious. The reality is take a Portuguese guy, no one hears about it, the money gets paid. Take an American and you’ve got a big issue on your hands. Not only can UK/USA/AUS not be seen to be paying ransoms to Al Qaeda affiliated groups, but it takes the game to another level politically and militarily. 


To understand the current threat we have tolook at what the islamists are focussed on?

AQMI’s focus before the Mali crisis was money and regional mafia politics, regional strategic positioning to protect their lucrative smuggling routes. The hostage taking coming in in 2008 was another way of making money, and it helped cut off the region and thus further entrenched their control.


It is unlikely that their focus has ever been expansion of an islamist agenda, rather the islamism is used to give credibility to their criminal interests. Politically really they are fighting Algeria’s war. Algeria’s bottom line at the moment is no international forces in Mali. But neither have an interest in a) expansion of the islamist territory b) provoking the international world beyond France. 


Their focus now is holding what they have got against the likes of the MNLA (Tuareg rebels) from the desert, the Malian army and/or ECOWAS to the south and east, the Mauritanian army from the west, a potential Ansar Dine split from within and internal divisions.


Currently they have 7 French nationals, a Dutchman, a Swede and a South African. 

No money is coming in for them nor is now likely to.


They’ve had them all for a long time. The last group (non French) taken was the Timbuktu three last November 2011, just before the crisis began. No negotiations are going on for their release. It is unlikely anyone is going to pay ransoms now. European governments have wised up that it doesn’t pay in the long run and the game has changed as these groups now control half a country. No one wants to fund or further arm them.


So when your shelves are well stocked but you can no longer shift your stock, why would you add to it?


Surely, with an event that is standing up to their sharia ban on music an attack could bring good publicity for a kidnapping?

But do they want publicity? Only if their motives are ideological, and no one is really suggesting that they are. I think they are doing nicely the more the situation remains on the fringes of the international agenda. Their only chance of being beaten out of the north now is if a UN/US/French force were to come in. There is nothing in any of the international discussions of a regional force that can really worry them at the moment on this. With talk that there is about a serious international force coming in, the forecasts are many months and possibly more than a year away. 


If you are AQMI, why would you do anything to potentially bring this forwards? The longer you stay in place, holding what you have, the more entrenched you get, the more time you have to bring in more support.


If you can’t get money from hostages, the only reason for taking them now would be political or ideological. Not much politics or ideology comes out from these guys – no great demands, no generalised anti-western rhetoric. The only rhetoric that does come from them is that the western world should stay out of this. Why do anything that could work against this? 


Why open your hand when you have all the cards?

If AQMI/MUJAO do want a battle they seem to want what they may well soon get: ECOWAS and/or Malian military. These forces are still completely unprepared, ill trained and unmotivated for a fight with mafia/islamists. If I were a betting man my money would be on the islamists to at least cause carnage before they retreat back to their safety in the desert and to their former lives.  


Why would they do anything that might begin to alter the balance of power away from this win win situation towards the one threat of force that could smash them apart – a UN/US/EU backed force? 


Notions of risk

My father asked me how, with no effective government in Mali, I could say I was safe on the streets of Bamako. I could only explain by comparing to awful massacre of children in Newtown in America. 


10,000 people a year get killed by guns in America. In terms of gun crime statistics, America is a very unsafe country to visit and yet it has a functioning government and a functioning society and none of us would really think twice about going there. Most tourists have no problems, some, occasionally, get caught up. Last year a British man was shot dead in a Texan bar. Would it stop me going to Texas? No.


Now clearly the threat of being kidnapped in west Africa and the threat of coming across gun crime in America are very different sorts of risk, but in terms of our assessment of the risks we take when we travel they are the similar. For both, the risk is of being caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which is the greater risk? Statistically you’d have to say going to America and getting caught up in gun crime if over 10,000 murders happen a year.


Whenever we travel to another country we put our trust, first and foremost, in the community that we are in. The risk of gun crime in America comes out of something in its society and its laws that permit the place to be a wash with deadly weapons. The risk to the tourist is completely random, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, just as it was for those poor children. The risk has nothing to do with the effectiveness or not of the USA government, it has to do with the society, the community – these guns are out there.


The risk of kidnap in west Africa does not come out of the community. I have never seen a gun in Africa that was not in the hands of military or police. I have never seen a vehicle full of armed bandits. I have never heard a gun shot in anger. I have never seen conflict. Of course these things exist but they are not wandering around areas I go to and long before I have ever reached an area that is unsafe I have been warned away.


In the whole Mali crisis only a couple of hundred people have been killed, and they were mostly military in rebel attacks at the beginning. Throughout the crisis, despite rebellion, coup d’etat x 2, islamist invasion, no functioning government, no one clearly in control, a divided and bruised military, civil society has held together and zero crime rates pretty much maintained. All of this is not and never has been primarily down to the government’s control, just as gun crime in America is not to do with its government, it is down to the community, the cultures and their history of co-existence. 


Bamako still has loads of expats there and they don’t wander around with concern or extra security, there is no extra military presence on the streets, and yet the UK FCO will tell you Bamako is unsafe. Yes they may have to say this as there is no effective government, but this is not based on any statistics or realistic threat. If it was really the case these expats would have left.


Real security anywhere is not in the hands of the authorities but in the hands of the community. This is what makes Mali fundamentally safe away from the north, and what best assures the security of the caravan of peace.




Mali’s prime minister is arrested and resigns in a second bloodless coup. Who gains?

“Our country is living through a period of crisis. Men and women who are worried about the future of our nation are hoping for peace,” he said. “It’s for this reason that I, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, am resigning along with my entire government on this day, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. I apologize before the entire population of Mali.”

Thus Cheikh Modibo Diarra, Mali’s interim Prime Minister, sweating, shocked and in a make shift studio, resigned his post. Last night he had been been arrested from his home in Bamako, bundled into a car and driven off to face Captain Sanago and his junta. 

I guess they were discussing his recent involvement in organising demonstartions in Bamako calling on the international world to come to Mali’s help to recapture the north from the islamists so that Malians from all sides can get on with working out the peace that they all want now. The question is begged, why was this not conducive to Sanago’s program?

This latest round in the shifts of power in the Mali crisis has been, like all the others, characerized less by the bullet and more by the “music”, not a game of cowboys and indians but more of musical chairs.

The massacre of military personnel at Aguelhoc occured because the Malian military had no bullets. The resulting confusion over who had committed this war crime  – MNLA rebels as the government wanted to say or AQMI islamists as the Tuareg themselves claim – and the subsequent anger and shame amongst military families and the poulation in Bamako that the government couldn’t even protect its own army gave Sanago the platform on which to launch the coup d’etat.

The coup d’etat itself was not the usual gun battle we have come to expect around an African president’s  relaease of power. Not a shot was fired, it is uncertain whether President Amadou Toumani Toure was even at home to greet the incoming Sanago or whether he was already in his safe house.

Then the vacuum of power and authority created by this bloodless coup enabled the MNLA rebels and the AQMI/MUJAO islamists and Ansar Dine to sweep across the desert and take Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in quick succession without a bullet fired.

The Berber and the Tuareg – A Snapshot of Situations

The Berbers are a proud race with one of the longest histories on earth. They called North Africa their home long before the arrival of the Arabs. Their culture is believed to date back more than 4,000 years and ancient Berber states called Mauritania and Numidia existed in classical times.

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, two great Berber dynasties – the Almoravids and the Almohads – much of north-west Africa and parts of Spain. Today, there are substantial Berber populations in Morocco and Algeria, plus smaller numbers in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.