Betsy towed 500km across the Sahara to find a messenger had arrived in Nouakchott

My attempts to find a tow in the freight lorries park where the trusks await for their  escort across Mauritania to Senegal came to nothing – too loaded up or foreign trucks that could not take the chance – so that night Betsy and I were pushed across the final frontier for this border I decided to hang with her rather than return to Nouadibou with Cheick who would look for a local truck going to Nouakchott.

I eat chicken and chips and salad that was about an hour and a half late, slept in my tent in the back of Betsy 10 meters on from the gate which consisted of a chain across the road to be awoken at dawn by the mornings border traffic lining up to go to Morocco.

I got up and decided to record myself so went to a rise in the sand to set up my tripod and camera. I was dressed in my prize Algerian camel wool djellaba which and doubles up as perfect cold desert night gear and alternative sleeping bag which was stolen in Rabat.

With the hood up, and Rachel’s sheep skin slippers on for the morning chill, the spot I chose was a rise in the sandy rock overlooking the beginning of the border, though I was behind all the action so no one could really see. Technically not done to photograph at borders.

I did my stuff, wandered about taking photos of grafitti and rubbish and went over to the only cafe had some bad coffee – good coffee ends after Morocco – sat inside and did some writing on my computer waiting for Cheick to come back with a solution for Nouakchott. At about 10 he came in.

“There you are. I thought you had been stolen! I tapped your tent, banged on the truck but nothing. I walked all the way to the gendarerie, no one has seen you.”

I was the only white boy in town sleeping in a union jack tent on top of a broken down truck painted as a hippy wagon emerging at dawn like something out of star wars flashing a camera meters from a border post. I think I’ve perfected the art of blending in.

Cheick had good news. A truck was leaving Nouadibou at 3pm and would tow me to Nouakchott for €300. With Betsy’s old petrol engine it would have cost me that in fuel.

“Let’s go”

€50 later a mercedes car was pulling Betsy and I to the Nouadibou-Nouakchott turn off, and Cheick and I went back into Nouadibou to have lunch, email off to family and meet up with Mohammed and Aly and their old green 40 ton Mercedes Truck carrying waste metal to Noauckchott.

Twenty meters after take off this very big bird ran out of diesel from the main tank. This was going to be a long ‘un. Memories of early day’s travels, trucking from Zimbabwe to Kenya, cooking steak on the gearbox slowly over the course of the day’s travel. I’m back to trucking with the boys! Slow, methodical, every mile an achievement, the journey the thing, not the destination.

It took us 2 hours to get the 60kms to Betsy who looked so small being tied up behind the Mercedes. Then we rolled.

We rumbled along through dusk and into a Saharan starlit night, Aly making tea and cooking dinner as we drove, me in Betsy staring at a back end of a truck and lining my steering up with a precise line on this green screen until about 11pm, when we stopped to eat good desert food of pasta and meat and to sleep, Mohammed on a mat on the ground sheltering from the wind behind a wheel, Aly in the cabin of the Mercedes and me in my tent in the back of Betsy.

I forgot to tell you. Without her canvas on – taken off to reduce “military aspect” – at a standstill Betsy sings, but only seemingly at night. In a wind her poles and holes hum and whistle. In her working life she did India, testified by her badges of honour. In her song I hear elephants, sitars and perhaps a past that she is singing to re-join. We’re nearing the tropics old girl – well a couple of thousand kilometers away but closer than you’ve been for decades.

I think she might be enjoying the heat – and she’s got it easy now, stubborn bitch!

Dawn and up.

Back to the rolling, back to the line on the screen, back to the rumble of Betsy all day, rescuing another truck stuck in the sands at one point, so Mercedes pulling Betsy pulling stuck truck. All ropes snapped! Sand plates did it in the end. And on till finally rolling into Nouakchott at 6pm and Auberge Awkar and my old friend Oulibou who OWES ME LOTS OF MONEY and has promised to sort me out with a solution to get to Bamako. Hurrah for Oulibou not being able to settle his debt all year!

As Mohammed pulled Betsy into place outside the side entrance to Auberge Awkar where Ibrahim, the ever-sleeping guardian could keep a watchful eye, a European man leaning on the wall smoking cast an amused and wistful eye on my arrival.

After finding out from him that Oulibou was not around and would be back soon so Mohammed would have to hold 5 (an African 5 of course) for the balance payment for the tow, the smoking stranger ushered me into the auberge to have a seat. He clearly wanted to chat.

Turned out he saw in my arrival a madman of his own image. He was a Saharan/African/West African traveller in the 60s and 70s in this part of the world. He was also a mechanic. 

I told him my problem, showed him round Betsy. “Bite the bullet. Change the engine, put in an old diesel one here in Nouakchott.”

A weight lifted. 

Through the  haze of the past few days, from the piston blowing, the rush to get out of Morocco by Christmas eve to avoid the fine, the difficulties at the border getting in, then planning for getting towed across Mauritania in 7 days and onto Bamako  to pick up her parts and get her fixed, i hadn’t thought of a new engine. Fixing her old up anyway was a gamble in itself, these petrol engines are not known out here, the wrong carburetor setting or wrong oil probably blew her piston, without Joe to monitor I was pissing in the wind. I’d almost given up the idea of her being used for the return, just get her to Bamako and fix her there while I go on to the camps and do returns with my landcruisers. But I could be towing her all the way there for another mechanic to make another mistake and she’s out again.

If I change to diesel she is more robust, cheaper to run – perhaps 3 times more efficient on cheaper fuel – better suited to the climate, easier to maintain out here, she has sale on value. I’ve got to spend on her anyway, if I do this now I’m salvaging Betsy for the future AND she’s ready to go again from here and onto the return.

The man’s name was Hervé. He was in his late 60s, French, in his words “a peasant” from the Massif Centrale, flying out of Nouakchott that night. Hervé had had the urge to leave the cold in France 10 days ago, as I was leaving Marrakech for Agadir. He drove an old banger he had stashed in a garage down and sold it to pay his journey and was going back home.

Our paths crossed as I was considering my next move to Bamako. An old weary traveller giving me my answer for the next push forwards.

Later that evening Hervé and I discussed. Our generations and nationalities clashed horns. We argued, saw things differently, he nostalgic for the generation past, me for just a few years ago, he seeing the problems coming from within and on the ground, in “Arabisation” and Islam, me blaming outside pressures, and suggesting a perversion, mythology and foreignness to any “islamism” the region supposedly has but that I have never heard defended.

I was up late that night and bumped into Hervé as he was leaving the auberge for the airport at 3am.

“Bon voyage” I said to his back as he walked to his taxi and I climbed into Betsy.

He did a theatrical wave without turning back, slid into the taxi and disappeared into the silent morning. Another messenger.

This trip has been burdened with bad luck and big problems, but blessed with messengers with clues to the way forward when I’ve needed them. Mohammed in Ceuta, Abdullai in Agadir, Cheick in Nouadibou and now Hervé.

And here I am, New Year’s day, Nouakchott, catching up on the end of the year. Last night a friend from the camp’s cousin called me. I ended up at possibly the only Tuareg gig in town, a large auditorium with not enough refugees to really make it fire. My first guitar, first Tuareg, first refugees of this journey, seeing out that difficult year and hoping to see Timbuktu very soon with Radwan and his family and my friends.

Today Betsy has been towed off again, this time to the mechanic’s to have her new engine put in. German Mercedes 11 13 diesel is marrying an old British war elephant. She’s learning the key to success in Africa: adapting to the environment.

So an African hybrid of ancient European models will emerge, a sign of the times behind in Europe and for her future in Africa. Fitted for new purpose, forwards efficiency and durability for her new climate. This is no time for tears for tradition or protocol or nostalgia. All that matters now are the 3000kms she needs to do to get us to Timbuktu.

Happy New Year from us both.

Goodbye to the old, bring on the new.

Come on 2014 – take us all back to Timbuktu in peace.

High Tailing it out of Morocco and not a jolly Christmas on the Mauritanian border

Dawn. Boxing Day. Nouadibou, Mauritania, after the worst Christmas Day on the Morocco Mauritania border. No family, no friends, no food, a little water, not a tinsel or coloured light to be seen, no telly, no games, no alcohol and not a wrapped present awaiting.

I spent the day explaining Betsy’s drastic situation to officials: why I had no engine, why Betsy had to be carried to the border on the back of another truck, why I was alone.

When I got to the Mauritanian customs I skipped losing my mechanic, losing my driver, the tons of metal I had left behind in Ceuta after 2 weeks of deliberation, the changing of Betsy’s “military aspect” into a hippy wagon, the cost of these trucks transport and the refugees project ahead. So I kept it to the past few days of this inadvertently epic journey. 

I skipped also how en route to Marrakech Betsy began her farting again which I had a Marrakech professional look into and then en route to Agadir a piston blew on me near a lovely lake and how Mocktar my Moroccan guide and his cousin Abdullai came to the rescue and before I knew it I was sailing across the a Sahara on the back of a breakdown truck. 

I jumped forwards to the present and how I had solutions to be towed to Bamako if only the custom’s chief would give me the normal tourist “laisser passer” which allows me to pass through the country rather than the normal lorry escort he was threatening to the Mali border. I even plunged into the whole refugee project ahead – something I have always kept quiet on official business as its amazing how much suspicion one arouses mentioning refugees – in an attempt to emotionally blackmail him. 

Despite the custom’s chief’s kindly face all was to no avail. My only options were: 

– put my truck onto another (towing not possible) and be escorted with all the freight lorries to the border, paying for the escort and of course my carriage. Arguing that Betsy is not exactly a lorry lorry, I have no merchandise, I am using her as a camping vehicle essentially, she is 57 years old….did not wash. 

– leave her at the border get my parts and return to repair here and drive her through Mauritania.

In that barren, sandy wasteland, the light went out on my journey, and like that crunching metalic thud that shuddered my hopes when the piston blew near Agadir, or the moment George announced he couldn’t be a driver, or when I lost Joe the mechanic and when the Moroccan customs couldn’t see beyond Betsy’s “military aspect”, I knew I was fucked. But this time – perhaps out of exhaustion, perhaps because this journey has broken me financially, and certainly because I realised that even if I passed this hurdle, I no longer had the resources personally and financially to climb anymore mountains – I could spy no chink of light.

So I packed up my personal things with my friend and guide Cheick and left Betsy at the border to go into Nouadibou wash, eat, drink, sleep. Cheick took me back to his family home. They fed me and watered me like one would a camel after a long caravan. 

I wasn’t able to stay at Cheick’s house. New security measures – all “tourists” (euphemism for white people) have to stay in hotels “for their security”. Don’t you love it! If I was looking for a tourist to kidnap, was I more likely to find my prey in a hotel or by searching all the houses of Nouadibou? But logic doesn’t work with security measures – the world over in my view, not just in Africa. It is just important to have rules, to have put in a measure, reacted. If someone tries to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb but they fail miserably, rather than laughing at their craziness we check everyone’s shoes when they get on a plane forever more. Thankfully the underpants bomber did not have the same effect – decorum bing more important than security I assume. But I’m drifting…!

So here I am, Christmas night, the only guest at Ali’s campement, everything seems to be over, the whole refugee return project hanging on a thread. As I lie down to sleep I have no new ideas other than turning up at the camps with a landcruiser and driving Radwan home and then relaying his family back to him and leaving it at that. I can still make a little effort, but its not going to be the caravan. 

What a Christmas.

——-

Dawn has come, the sun is out – at least its warm here! – and something is bubbling away inside my head. 

If this journey has been trying to tell me something perhaps it is that these trucks are not my answer. They are a hinderance, a burden and I possibly should have been bold in Ceuta having lost Joe and done something that was fluttering in my head all the time: go it alone.

And if this campaign, 7 months in the making, has indicated one thing it is that I am best alone: whenever I have sought outside help I have been thwarted, cornered, delayed, frustrated and betrayed by others’ interests.

I have to work this out now from within the refugee community.

Perhaps  now I need, perhaps, to start shouting loud. I’ve been too cautious. Now I must just be bold, say it as it is and use my trump card. 

I can’t say too much about this for fear of scaring it off. It’s an ace card, someone who has it in their power to enable me to help the refugees. If I play it I have to be sure, I have to play it well.

Full speed to Bamako without the burden of vehicles, travelling as I like it: alone, on foot with my resources in my head and in my bag.

—————–

Boxing day I returned with Cheik to the border to decide what to do with Betsy. Either I give up now, and take her back across the Mauritanian border into “no man’s land”, a 5km chunk of mined desert between Morocco and Mauritania, a place littered with the carcasses of cars and trucks, where deals are done on vehicles between borders. There I’d park her up and Cheik would come each day, as he does anyway to help tourists through the borders and hope to find guiding business, and slowly he’d sell off Betsy’s parts or sell her whole.

Or I leave Betsy with customs at a charge while I go off and find her parts, do my business, come back and repair her. This would involve more spending on a truck that had lost its purpose. If I left her with the customs and didn’t return they’d sell her off themselves. I’d prefer Cheik to gain something. So caught between customs and no man’s land!

 Cheick wanted me to make my decision but I felt I had to give the chief of customs one last go. Cheick said it would be impossible, no way would they give me a laisser passer because they knew I’d get Betsy towed.  I was going to go for all or nothing. I wanted the laisser passer, because I knew I had the big man Oulibou waiting in Nouackchott and he owed me cash. He had already told me he had a truck that he was trying to sell and if he couldn’t he would take it to Bamako and could tow me. 

So the only solutions that suited me were leaving the truck for the wolves in no man’s land and forgetting it, or towing it to Bamako with Oulibou. The latter demanded a laisser passer.

The chief has a kindly face and I felt there was sympathy yesterday.  When I braved to tell him about the refugees his response was “you should help those in Mauritania too.” I jumped on that: “I am. Many of those in Burkina have relatives in the Mauritania camps”.

I explained to the chief that I’d tried to look for a breakdown truck to put Betsy on but not found anything (a wee lie, Cheick had told me they don’t have them in Nouadibou). I told him about my solution for towing all the way to the Mali border so if I could just get a laisser passer I could resolve my situation. If not, then I will have lost everything.

He interrupted: “I’ll come and see the vehicle”. My heart jumped, this was the opening I was looking for.

I waited and waited, hardly daring to hope. Eventually he came while I was scoffing a sandwich “No – continue eating” he said as I put my food aside “no, no not at all” I replied. He took a brief glance at the truck and turned back to his office.

About an hour or so later Cheick came back to me: “he’s giving you a laisser passer!”

Oh my God. Last night it was all over, I was resolved to going on alone by foot, and almost looking forward to it, but the loss of Betsy was hard to take. Suddenly its all back on. All I need to do is get her to Bamako. From there I have her forever. Now I just need to find a tow to Nouackchott!

Not sure I can cope with much more of this see-saw ride. What more is ahead?

Why am I doing this and why should you care?

Now I have broken the barrier and am finally in Africa proper I can see the journey ahead and turn my attention again to its purpose: the refugees in Burkina Faso, Radwan and his family, my friends and the people I have grown to know this year.

Why should you care if I get across the Sahara, through Mauritania, into Mali with an old truck so I can help some friends? A hundred or so people I can hope to help – it’s a drop in the ocean! There are 50,000 in Burkina Faso alone. What impact can this possibly have in the greater scheme of things in Mali?

And why should it concern you anyway that some obscure dispossessed people go home? Hey shit happens, the world is a complicated place and this is Africa after all!

For me it’s not just the humanitarian principle of a state and an international politics that denies and ignores a cultural catastrophe that is happening to the Tuareg, some of the world’s last real nomads, whose ancestry recedes and branches back from the guardians of the Sahara to the Berber and the Atlas mountains of Morocco, the Moors of the Alhambra in Spain, protectors of the Prophet Mohammed in Arabia, to the shores and the sails of Phoenicia and perhaps, some say, on backwards to the centre of western tradition, the family of Israel. Are they the lost tribe of Israel? If they were this would explain the world’s blindness and deafness: it’s in our DNA!

For me it is the politics and mythology of the war on terrror, which is fundamentally the west’s war to wage on wherever it finds its strategic interests lie, that has driven the Tuareg to this catastrophe. Radwan Ag Ayouba’s story is testimony to this: in his 90 or so years he has weathered every Saharan storm thrown at him from drought to sword war fare to rebellions. He weathered this crisis – the rebellion, the coup d’etat, the MNLA take over of Timbuktu, the Al Qaeda occupation right up to the French “liberatation” and then he fled Timbuktu and Mali for the first time in his life, leaving all his livestock behind. The international world, represented by the French military, the UN agencies and 12,000 peacekeeping troops have been present on the ground in Mali for the duration of Radwan’s exile. During the past 6 months he has watched peace return to his country, a president elected, recent legislative elections done and dusted with no incident, tourists coming back and yet he is withering away in exile aong with most of the Malian population of his colour.

If Mali was in Europe, if it was say Yugoslavia, you’d know what was happening, but the only time you hear about Mali is when something happens in Timbuktu. Moreover, in the coming years, military chiefs would be hauled up before the Hague. No one will face justice for the campaign against the Tuareg, that’s for sure: no one has ever been put before a court for any atrocities committed against the Tuareg, and they have come after every rebellion, the camps are full of the testimonies.

I hear, though I cannot confirm, that the 2012-13 exodus from Mali is the greatest migration of people from the Sahara region ever. How often have you seen images of the Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, or Niger on TV? Often enough to justify one of the biggest ever migrations of people in Africa? And what do you know about what drove them to migrate? Have you heard the term “ethnic cleansing” or a ‘colour war” applied to the Mali crisis? If not, why not when 95% of the refugees are light skinned Tamashek, aka “Tuareg”?

Before this journey, over the past 6 months, I have tried every angle I could to seek support for helping the refugees begin returning. The conditions are there for it to be possible, but they are stuck in political limbo. The UN will only help them back once Mali signs off that it is ready to take them back.

Meanwhile all the people of the north – Songai, Arab, Peul – are suffering. Those who are in, say, Timbuktu, suffer because without half the population the economy cannot get going, many displaced people within Mali (225,000 according to UNHCR) wont return because nothing is happening, and the refugees don’t go back because they have no means and they are not sure what humanitarian set up awaits them because they get no information.

The UN will only support the refugees to go home once the Mali government has signed off an accord with the UN to say it is ready and prepared to have the refugees home. Why isn’t it ready now? There are 12,000 UN peacekeeping troops on the ground, with the French in force as well, all the UN and NGO agencies needed to reconstruct, development money waiting to come in: the country has never been safer. They have an elected president and have had two country wide elections. Peace is back and yet the refugees can’t go home.

The refugees are on their knees, many have been out of Mali for 2 years, all have had to support themselves with anything they want other than 12 kilograms of rice a month which is all they receive from the UN. Their resources have depleted, their animals stocks are again decimated or totally lost, their lives have been turned upside down, their children have missed out on education, students’ degrees are on hold, lives are all in limbo while the government and international institutions that should be looking after them continue to play the politics which got these people into this mess in the first place.

This journey aims to be a spark to bring this issue to light.

The third blow in 24 hours and everything grinds to a halt.

I must apologise for my silence. I have been writing, but as may become clear in the following pieces, as well as being trapped physically in a corner of Europe on Africa my computer began playing up and I was trapped outside cyber space as well. Plus as will become clear, major re-thinking about how to go forwards has been going on daily.

I slept well in Betsy the night the border prevented our military convoy passing, better than I had since we left England. With the stress of worrying about Jarmo and Anna gone and having reconciled the thought of going forwards without a mechanic, the border issue seemed a minor obstacle.

George, the film maker (real names are all now changed for legal reasons) hadn’t slept well. Passers by commenting on the trucks kept him awake. Opening Betsy’s canvas I saw a throng of Moroccan women and children walking in from the border, for the day’s work and school I presumed.

We went across the road to a cafe for coffee. It was all Moroccan men, smoking on the terrace with an empty interior. It would be the other way round 1km away. We entered and ordered our café con lechés at the bar, and went out to the terrace to warm up in the morning sun.

A kindly looking Saddam Hussein without the tash welcomed us with “Bishmillah” and asked our nationalities. Michael trotted them out and we discussed the way forward. I would get some paint and we’ll spend the morning painting the trailer to show an effort and then try and cross as early as possible to catch the big customs chief. I was no longer convinced, it felt like pissing in the wind, but what else could we do other than return to Algeciras and re-cross via Tangier?

We finished up and went back to the trucks. Michael was antsy, possibly picking up on my lack of conviction.

Not to waste time I decided to go and find paint. I went back to the cafe and asked Saddam where I might find paint. A young lad jumped up and said he’d take me – the kindness of strangers – and seconds later I was burning round Ceuta checking out the paint stores. Not speaking Spanish, this was lots of charades and my Italio-French with “th”s and “b”s. Typical I thought – I’m trapped on the one tiniest little corner of Africa where I can’t converse and I’m in the shit.

Finally found paint that would do the job. Bought 5 liters of “peace” white – I may look a bit UN but any other colour had connotations – and returned to Michael who I found sitting in the back of Betsy looking out to sea.

“I got to talk to you man. You got another problem on your hands. I can’t take over from Joe  and drive Maud across the border. I’ve been here before when my grandmother died and it would be mad to put myself in the same situation for my grandfather. Plus it’s just beyond journalist protocol. This is your journey, I’m just here to film, but I can’t be trappped in the journey. I’m sorry but one thing is certain, I am not having a vehicle in my name across Morocco.”

Well they come in threes! Joe, customs chief and George in less than 24 hours! Now I really was fucked. Two huge trucks, no mechanic and only me as a driver and George to film how I get out of this mess! The whole return, this journey, all I had been working for this year was falling away from me. I lay down on my bed space. “We’ll be here for some time while I figure this one out.”

Michael threw me a lifeline: “it could be the answer to your finance problems. Take Maud to Mauritania, sell her there and then use the money to come back and take Betsy to Burkina.”

“That will add 2 weeks”.

But it was an idea. Now Joe and Emma have gone, the one thing we have is time. There’s no date for the refugees, we’re already later than planned, with one vehicle we are less a military convoy…

Again the dark dark cloud lightened, he was talking sense. There’s always a chink!

I could see a truth about this journey which troubled me but also gave me a strange comfort. Despite my attempts to push the codependence of this group, I was alone on this journey, as indeed I was on the caravan of refugees project and as are the Tuareg themselves. I have sought help, partnership, I have tried to hand over to others, I have been taken on and strung along and engendered interest at high levels in the UN, but so far when push has comes to shove, when I have required a leg up, when I relied too heavily on others with power to push forwards or reached out into the official world I have found only mirages.

From now on this particular journey I had to concentrate on what was best for me and my purpose. The film, George, Joe and Emma had been having too much impact on my decision making. To move on now I had to play the same game, I had to act in my interests, which are getting to the refugee camp and not bankrupting myself in doing it, preferably with these vehicles but if not by selling them and using the money to fund the return in-situ by hiring other trucks out there. If I now have to camp up here in Ceuta for a month to sort myself out, so be it. One thing is certain, I cannot take these trucks back to UK.

I had pressed our co-dependence as a group but to no avail. Its one of those African things, and something the lone traveller relies upon but which the individual tourist finds difficult to take on. It’s letting the journey dictate, suppressing individual need for that of the group, the journey and the vehicle (s) carrying you.

I needed to go forwards now looking after my interests in the trucks and this journey or I will have nothing left for the refugees. I needed to go back to my way of travel. First principle: don’t rush. Second: trust in the community. Only problem I’m not quite in Africa Africa yet. But those guys in the cafe, they are essentially African, though being Arab they may not accept it.

“OK George. So we are staying here tonight. First I have to find somewhere to park up Betsy and then I want to paint the trailer and possibly Maud. Just a little to do today.”

First port of call. My lad who took me for the paint, his car was still outside the cafe.

With my Italo-FranglArabia and gestures I explained how I needed to park one truck for some time and I needed it to be for free. I heard in his Spanish: “I have a friend, just here, you can park for free” and he was marching to his car.

We climbed into our trucks, and turned round (not easy) back to follow our lad towards the border. A few hundred yards and right up a winding hill and into a fenced off lot perched on a hillock above the coastal road to the border. To the right was the border, to the left a gleaming European city looking out east from the peninsular to the Mediterranean sea. The day had become cold, drizzly like a British coastal town so Gibralter across the sea was now hidden. We were between Europe and Africa, at the Gates of Hercules between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. I had a massive burden on my shoulders. I’m really not sure where all this is going suddenly.

Betsy and Maud cause more problems…

Betsy Bedford and Guy Lankester, copyright Michael MeredithPhoto ©Michael Meredith.

The border lights loom ahead. It’s midnight as our metal convoy rolls up and joins the queue of loaded up cars returning with Spanish goods to Morocco. Ancient elephants amongst burdened donkeys.

Borders, arbitrary scars across the landscape of human history, symbols of conflict and “security”, mankind’s crossing points from one system of control to another, restrictions to our primal urge: migration.

The Spanish authorities wave us through, broad smiles and chuckles emanating from toy soldier uniforms at our oversized tonka toy army. We snake through quickly and pull on to the Moroccan side. Again, as we throng through the foot soldier guard and the touting throng of hooded men, the respectful reception to our midnight majesty.

Park up. Ignore the smoking touts wanting to fill in an immigration form or “fiche”and ultimately charge me a euro to show me where to queue, warn Michael off them as he’s spinning in the maelstrom, line up for our police number to be tattooed into my travel documents so the police can trace me and bind me to my truck, cheerful but wily police man: “do you smoke?”. Is this a test question or a request? Truth is best. “Yes”. He puts on a sternness, “do you have tobacco?”. I don’t believe him and I’m not in the mood: “No” I lie.
“Nothing to give me?”
“Nada, desolé.”
He hovers, considers then smiles and hands me my passport. “OK. bon voyage!”
“Shookeran”

Customs queue. Fill in green “fiche” for Betsy, hand Michael one to fill in for Maud. Michael hesitates: “do I have to put Maud in my name?”. “Yes as the driver.” “I can’t do that, you didn’t tell me”. I thought I had when we discussed taking two vehicles but I had forgotten to add this point when Joe left.
“Well I’m sorry if i didn’t but obviously I can’t drive two vehicles at the same time and each country we go into the person who drives the car in is responsible for that car and we lost our other driver.”
“What if I have to leave Morocco – I don’t intend to but if my grandfather gets ill… I got trapped in Guatemala doing exactly this and nearly missed seeing my grandmother before she died. If my grandfather is dying I have to be able to get out.”
I assured Michael he could get out. I had to do this last summer when my friend Dave had to leave Morocco. We transferred the vehicle out of his name and left it at customs at the airport.

Michael wasn’t happy but filled out the form on my assurance that if he had to get out we’d impound Maud at the airport.

“La Grande Bretagne” said the customs officer as he plugs the details from my vehicle and my police number into the computer, “your first time to Morocco?” “No.”
Moves onto Michael. “America”. All seems to be going swimmingly as he chats about baseball to Michael when he gets up and leaves his cubicle, walks across the tarmac to an older man in a smart light blue overcoat and over done military hat – a bit like the king in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – hands over the papers and points to the trucks. They can only really see Betsy. I turn bak to her. She does look like a huge elephant next to the tiny cars!

A minion beckons me over. I begin to walk. He shoos me back to bring Betsy forwards.
Once this is done I try to charm the chief: “50 years old!”. Nothing, just a shake of the head as he eyes her up and down, picks at her details… He’s looking pretty negative, just ride this one out. Feign lack of concern, nothing to worry about as nothing to hide…

After about half an hour of them pretending we are not there things come to a head. The chief is dismissive “militaire” and walks away to a desk and chair randomly positioned on the tarmac. I approach him slowly as though he’s a big beast with much power and I am a little ant, I plead Betsy and Maud’s antique quality, their 50 years. He looks beyond me. His side kick – a tad Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther – barks “military aspect” and signals me to turn round and go back.

As I give up, too tired to struggle now, the chief throws out “come back in the morning and see the chief”.

Another chief! We cause a great stir turning Betsy and the trailer round and returning to Spain the wrong side of the road, having to move barriers and bollards and gates to squeeze out our girls. I km back towards Ceuta there is a lay by by the sea. We pull in, makes ourselves a sandwich, crack open a bottle of wine and camp up in Betsy the night with the glimmer of hope the big chief in the morning.

I decide in the morning I will paint at least the trailer, show an effort to de-militarise, for sake of the big chief!

——————————–

I slept well in Betsy, better than I had since we left England. With the stress of worrying about Jarmo and Anna gone and having reconciled the thought of going forwards without a mechanic, the border issue seemed a minor obstacle.

Michael hadn’t slept well. Passers by commenting on the trucks kept him awake. Opening Betsy’s canvas I saw a throng of Moroccan women and children walking in from the border, for the day’s work and school I presumed.

We went across the road to a cafe for coffee. It was all Moroccan men, smoking on the terrace with an empty interior. It would be the other way round 1km away. We entered and ordered our café con lechés at the bar, and went out to the terrace to warm up in the morning sun.

A kindly looking Saddam Hussein looky likey without the tash welcomed us with “Bishmillah” and asked our nationalities. Michael trotted them out and we discussed the way forward. I would get some paint and we’ll spend the morning painting the trailer to show an effort and then try and cross as early as possible to catch the big customs chief. I was no longer convinced, it felt like pissing in the wind, but what else could we do other than return to Algeciras and re-cross via Tangier?

We finished up and went back to the trucks. Michael was antsy, possibly picking up on my lack of conviction of the way forward.

Not to waste time I decided to go and find paint. That at least i knew i had to do. I went back to the cafe and asked Saddam where I might find paint. A young lad jumped up and said he’d take me – the kindness of strangers – and seconds later I was burning round Ceuta checking out the paint stores. Not speaking Spanish, this was lots of charades and my Italio-French with “th”s and “b”s. Typical I thought – I’m trapped on the one tiniest little corner of Africa where I can’t converse and I’m in the shit.

Found paint that would do the job, 5 liters of “peace” white and returned to Michael who I found sitting in the back of Betsy looking out to sea.

“I got to talk to you man. You got another problem on your hands. I just can’t do it – drive Maud across the border. I’ve been here before when my grandmother died and it would be mad to put myself in the same situation for my grandfather. Plus it’s just beyond journalist protocol – if funding came through for the film and I had to go back to the US for interviews and I was stuck in Morocco it would be really bad. I’m sorry but one thing is certain, I am not having a vehicle in my name across Morocco.”

Well they come in threes! Joe, customs chief and Michael in less than 24 hours! I understood and sypathised with Michael’s position. But now I really was fucked. Two huge trucks, no mechanic and only me as a driver and Michael here to record how I get out of this mess! The whole return, this journey, all I had been working for this year was falling away from me. I lay down on my bed space. “We’ll be here for some time while I figure this one out.”

Michael threw me a lifeline: “it could be the answer to your finance problems. Let’s just go in one vehicle and once through Morocco come back for the other”

“That will add 2 weeks”.

But it was an idea. The one thing we have now is time. There’s no date for the refugees, we’re already later than planned, with one vehicle we are less a military convoy…

Again the dark dark cloud lightened, he was talking sense. There’s always a chink!

I could see a truth about this journey which troubled me but also gave me a strange comfort. Despite my attempts to push the codependence of this group, I was alone on this journey, as indeed I was on the caravan of refugees project and as are the Tuareg themselves. I have sought help, partnership, I have tried to hand over to others, I have been taken on and strung along and engendered interest at high levels in the UN, but so far, at every turn, when push has come to shove, when I have required a leg up, when I have called in an “interest”, when I have relied on another or reached out I have found only mirages.

From now on this particular journey I had to concentrate on what was best for me and my purpose. The film, Michael, Joe and Emma had been having too much impact on my decision making. To move on now I had to play the same game, I had to act in my interests, which are getting to the refugee camp and not bankrupting myself in doing it, preferably with these vehicles but if not by selling them and using the money to fund the return in-situ by hiring other trucks out there. If I now have to camp up here in Ceuta for a month to sort myself out, so be it. One thing is certain, I cannot take these trucks back to UK.

I had pressed our co-dependence as a group but to no avail. Its something the lone traveller relies upon but which the individual tourist sometimes finds difficult to take on. It’s letting the journey dictate, suppressing individual need for that of the group, the journey and the vehicle (s) carrying you.

I needed to go forwards now looking after my interests in the trucks and this journey or I will have nothing left for the refugees. I needed to go back to my way of travel. First principle: don’t rush. Second: trust in the community. Only problem I’m not quite in Africa Africa yet. But those guys in the cafe, they are essentially African, though being Arab they may not accept it.

“OK Michael. So we are staying here tonight. First I have to find somewhere to park up Betsy and then I want to paint the trailer and possibly Maud. Just a little to do today.”

First port of call. My lad who took me for the paint, his car was still outside the cafe.

With my Italo-FranglArabia and gestures I explained how I needed to park one truck for some time and I needed it to be for free. I heard in his Spanish: “I have a friend, just here, you can park for free” and he was marching to his car.

We climbed into our trucks, and turned round (not easy) back to follow our lad towards the border. A few hundred yards and right up a winding hill and into a fenced off lot perched on a hillock above the coastal road to the border. To the right was the border, to the left a gleaming European city looking out east from the peninsular to the Mediterranean sea. The day had become cold, drizzly like a British coastal town so Gibralter across the sea was now hidden. We were between Europe and Africa, at the Pillars of Hercules between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. I had a massive burden on my shoulders. I’m really not sure where all this is going suddenly.

Europe from Africa, Europe in Africa!

————-

Next up: how Betsy turned from the above to this and who the little thing is:

Hippy Betsy Bedford

 

A Story of Two Fat Ladies as the Return 2 Timbuktu Departs

Betsy and Maud climb through an English villageThis is Betsy and Maud.

They have got me into a bit of trouble at the southernmost point of Europe and the northernmost point of Africa. From here I can see Morocco, Spain and a piece of Britain. But to reach my goal and achieve my aim I know i can no longer do this alone, i now need to garner support.

 

So I must tell our story:

 

Ceuta, Spain in Africa.

I rarely write publicly as I travel because I don’t like revealing my whereabouts. But I am cornered now on this journey of all my journeys I am making from UK along the familiar route to Mali and my way out and my mission depends now on openness.

 

My mission is to cross the Sahara and reach Burkina Faso with vehicle capacity and a camera to take an old Tuareg chief and his family back home to Timbuktu.

 

Security is not my concern. In Africa security lies in the community and this i am never without, and here I at least found Mohammed who is central to the Moroccoan comunity in Ceuta so I am with Africans and they are looking after me well.

 

Nor do I envisage security to be a problem further on if  get through and finally make it into Mali, nor do I think it is the number one issue for the refugees returning, which is what this journey is about. If I felt security was an issue at any stage I wouldn’t be going forwards.

 

No my problem is not security. My problem right now is Betsy and Maud. They are the reason this journey has been so cumbersome and expensive, they are the reason we had to take a mechanic with us so he could look after their vintage needs; they are the reason the mechanic has abandonned me and they are now the reason I am cornered in Spanish Ceuta on continental Africa, unable to pass into Morocco; they are the reason I now have to change direction, change plan and come up with a new idea of a way forward so I can get myself and my remaining companion, the film maker Michael Meredith, to Burkina Faso to take Radwan Ag Ayouba, to his ancestral lands. These two large ladies!

 

I’m being unfair. Its not really all their fault. They are victims of heritageism!

 

For the journey from UK to the southern tip of Spain they had been waved at and photographed, pointed out to children and respected for their considerable age. Then suddenly, crossing into Morocco, chiefs of customs in smart uniforms were speechless, slick dudes in shades tutted and photographed and a guy straight out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the tash, the stick, the white hat and big belly ran his fingers across Betsy’s curves and barked “military aspect!” Poor old Betsy and Maud blushed and my heart sank.

 

I’d better go back to the beginning of this journey to explain Betsy and Maud.

We met… wow only a few weeks ago, seems like a lifetime… in York where I went with Michael Meredith, a US film maker who is with me to record the journey, to look at a 1957 Bedford army truck and her sister, a 1964 Bedford Towing truck, for our upcoming trip to Burkina Faso.

 

The 1957 was fit for the purpose of carrying a lot of people and, I was assured by the charity I was buying from, solid as a rock, simple petrol engine and geared for their own aborted journey to Africa.

 

I was in unchartered territory with such a big and old truck but bit the bullet and bought her. She  promptly conked out a mile down the road. So Michael and I left York in our hire car with the promise that the charity we were buying from would sort the vehicle out in a week’s time.

 

Back home in Bristol I said to Michael that I was going to abandon the idea unless we took the two trucks, one as security for the other and a mechanic.

 

A week later we returned to York with a new deal with the charity –  we take the two trucks, one on credit – and Michael had roped in his Finnish friend Jarmo who was an uber-mechanic who specialised in classic cars and was up for the journey if he could bring his wife, Anne who wanted to come down to Mauritania with us and they she would leave and he would continue onto the camps with us. Perfect.

 

Again our departure from York  was delayed by a night as the trucks hadn’t been moved for months and the work we assumed was being done to prepare them for us after our first aborted attempt clearly hadn’t been done. 

 

But eventually we got going: the big bird “Betsy”, a towing truck who became “Maud”, a solid trailer sadly without name, me knowing the way and the why and driving Michael to film,  and Jarmo our mechanic and the other driver with his wife Anne to just enjoy the madness of it all had arrived. We were a strong enough team thrown together at the last minute as we left northern England to go back to Bristol, and then the following day onto Portsmouth for the ferry to Bilbao and …. the Sahara.

 

Early signs on the journey were worrying. Jarmo and Anne arrived with colds and were anxious to get to the sun and I was pressured to rush which I hate when travelling as it gets you nowhere more quickly and usually the opposite with something left undone or behind. Anne’s high heeled shoes when we left Bristol caused an eyebrow lift from Mum as she waved us off. I was getting messages that unless we got to Morocco quickly Jarmo might jump ship because Anna wanted the sun, and then we’d be stuck without a mechanic. So on we rushed.

 

Portsmouth to Bilbao and across Spain.

Luckily I delayed our departure from Bristol as it gave me time to buy jump leads which were promptly used 12 miles into our journey to Portsmouth. Tinkered a little with the trucks for a drizzling afternoon in Bilbao and then the next day set off across the mountains of the Basque country. The sun was out as we climbed and descended and Michael took advantage of the light, got into his harness and tied himself onto the back of Maud the tow truck to film me driving. Awesome day.

 

The journey across Spain to Algeciras where we would get the ferry to Morocco was surprisingly without incident with the trucks but Jarmo was appalled at their mechanical maintenance. But after a hesitant start my two old girls were great. Betsy didn’t start one morning, Maud was a bit of a carbon monoxide chamber, Betsy “back fired”, as she calls it, like a trooper, but what to expect from 50 year old ladies? And everyone loved them.

 

We pulled into Algeciras in the evening of our third day in Spain. The first leg was over, we had made it across Europe, though we had done nothing to sort out Betsy and Maud’s outrageous drinking problem so I was burning money in a race to get Jarmo and Anne to the sun of Morocco where we would stop for a few days to have a good look over the trucks and try to curb their crazy consumption.

 

I suggested we take the ferry straight onto Tangier that night and we could be in Rabat by the next afternoon, but Jarmo wanted to stay the night in Algeciras. I was getting a bit tired – the trip had become all about Jarmo and Anna, the purpose of getting to Burkina was getting lost, and yet they were travelling for free and Michael was paying all their costs. I had been sold Jarmo as this tough Fin who was totally up for a road trip. All I could see was a couple who needed  a Holiday Inn each night and could only do what they were engaged for for their free ride when we got to the sun.

 

And then the first bombshell landed. After delays leaving Algeciras as i had been alerted to a potential problem getting my trucks into Morcco as they were lorries so i may need to pay transit costs Jarmo and Anna decided they were going to leave us from Rabat. 

 

Bombshell and pissed off. I had agreed to do this journey with these old Bedford trucks for the sake of the film and because we had an expert mechanic all the way to Mali. We had just raced across Spain without looking at the trucks at extra expense to me just to get Jarmo and Anne to Morocco so that Jarmo would stick with us to Bamako.

 

That night I couldn’t sleep. My head was spinning with the possible consequences of Jarmo leaving. Also someone had alerted me to a problem I may have with the trucks getting into Morocco at Tangier – I may have to pay transit charges as they could be seen as utilitarian vehicles.

With my mind racing I decided we couldn’t take the 6am ferry as planned as I needed to check out the Tangier issue. Understandably Jarmo was furious, but I had no option. When I feel like I’m heading for trouble and I don’t know what to do, I have to stop and do nothing until I see the right solution.

 

I spent the morning rushing round checking this Tangier issue. Nobody could give me a firm answer. Spanish customs and even Moroccan police couldn’t say. Eventually the best advice from two people was rather than cross to Tangier to go to Ceuta instead as this was a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast, a bit like Gibralter, so if there was a problem on the border I wouldn’t have to pay for the vehicles to return to Spain by ferry.

 

I remembered Ceuta from my first time crossing the Sahara. It can be a problematic border   because Morocco don’t like Spain having a rock of theirs. Sounds like Spain about Gibralter no? Ah colonialism!

 

I was ready. That was the plan, we’d go to Ceuta. We could catch the 1200 ferry. Word came back that Jarmo was stalling. We missed the 1200. At 1330 Michael, Jarmo and Anne came over to me at the truck yard. 

 

Second bombshell: Jarmo announced that he and Anne were leaving that night for Sevilla and flying from there back to Finland. They weren’t even coming to Rabat.

 

We were a week into their trip. All had been focussed on getting them out of the cold of UK and northern Spain to Morocco, Michael had been putting them up in hotels all week and I had been throwing cash at fuel aiming for Rabat, no work had really been done to the trucks and there’s lots to do but Jarmo wanted to do it in the sun, and just as we are ready to go across the Med to the sun, the Sahara, and Africa… Jarmo and Anne left Michael and me and Betsy and Maud as they disappeared in their hire car.

 

Its going to be tough and once we get to Rabat I need to rethink things. Let’s just get to Rabat. I get 19.30 tickets to Ceuta. We cause a stir getting Betsy to back the trailer onto the ferry. And gradually I realised it was for the best that they left. Jarmo and Anne were not up for the rigours of Africa, and certainly not for this particular trip.

 

On the boat I discuss with Michael how losing Jarmo felt initially like the floor falling away from the whole journey but now felt like a relief, now the journey is what it is, with no pressure or agenda that isnt to do with the project ahead. Now it was my journey and Michael was filming it. Not having the extra driver was going to be difficult but we’d have to work something out on that.

 

In Ceuta we decide to stop off to get cheap last minute wine and something to eat from the  last European supermarket we’d see before hitting the border. Neither of us were tired and we could sleep the other side.

 

Ceuta is about 3 kms long then there’s a wall snaking up the mountain and a border post by the sea. We all rolled up to the border. Africa at last, from here… i know where i am.

 

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 7.45.52 AMPhotograph: Michael MeredithPhotograph Michael MeredithP1070154

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 Aljazeera.com) 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?

Life as a refugee

Daily life as a refugee is not as bad as you might assume. At least
not here at MENTAO Central, Djibo Burkina Faso where I have come to
stay with my Tuareg friends.

Mali’s crisis does not follow the patterns of most of the continent’s
wars. The active combatants on the ground are predominantly foreigners
for a start when most wars in Africa are civil; most  refugees flee
warring forces seeking to control the government, these ones flee
their own national army, the defenders of the peace left behind by the
liberating French forces.

Here at MENTAO refugee camp near Djibo there are none of our expected images of refugee
poverty. There are no starving children, no one has fled battling
forces, not many have trekked miles to get here. They are more likely
to arrive in Toyota pick ups.

Indeed if you were just passing by and ignored the UNHCR signs on some
of the tents, or the OXFAM water tower, you may just think it was
another African village, albeit a rather large one, stretching off
into the bush.

Maybe this is why the media stay away, preferring to chase the shadow
of the crisis in Mali rather than the substance that is here, seeking
the image of the battling twin forces of foreign invitees, AQMI and
France, rather than the domestic crisis that sparked off all this
mess.

Of course the journalists seek the stories that interest the world at
large, the international war that this year is Mali’s turn to host.

It is outside Mali, in the camps of refugees in Mauritania, Algeria,
Niger and Burkina Faso, that the story of Mali’s domestic crisis, the
root cause and catalyst of the problems of the last year, is taking
place.

Over the next few weeks I will be telling personal stories from the camps.

Who is in the camps?
The camps here, as those in the other countries, are predominantly
filled with the Tamasheq (the correct term for Tuareg which includes
the black “Bella” Tamasheq speakers).

In MENTAO, Djibo they are 85% Tamashek, 15 % Arab. Here in Burkina
Faso they receive refugees from Timbuktu, the region east of Timbuktu
to Gao and south of the river Niger to the Burkina border. Also any
Tuareg who were in Bamako at the beginning of the crisis – students,
state functionaries, policemen, gendarmes, teachers etc – came here.

The reason for the lack of squalor here is not that UNHCR are
providing a lux camp. This is the refuge of the well to do, of those
who had the means to escape. Great families from Timbuktu who can
trace their lineage back to the Prophet, wealthy business people,
travel operators, teachers, lawyers, merchants, nomads, students,
school girls and boys. All have left all they have behind – jobs,
projects, homes, businesses, careers, studies, animals. No one who had
the means in their family to leave Malian soil has stayed.

Journalists returning from Timbuktu and Gao report that there are no
fair skins around. Many left right at the beginning of the crisis. The
first big wave was in late January and February 2012. The MNLA
rebellion had started, and the Tamasheq, remembering the consequences
of previous rebellions, began to leave, quickly, fleeing the
inevitable retribution against the northern population by the Malian
military that always follows rebellions.

The second smaller wave was around the time of the coup d’etat and the
islamist usurping of the MNLA advance to take Azawad in April 2012.
They weren’t fleeing the occupying islamist forces or the potential of
battles between the MNLA and AQMI, but the possibility of
international intervention now that AQMI were in control.

The recent big wave came with the French intervention, but this time
it was more the liberation than the intervention that caused the
exodus. It is the Malian military they flee who inexplicably have no
supervising UN, French or ECOWAS force with them. A military who are
very much one of the causes of the crisis, with no effective authority
controlling them and a history of atrocities against the northern
population, are left behind by the French army to manage the peace in
the very territory the same military abandoned without a fight,
leaving the population to their fate back in March 2012.

Here in Burkina at least they are safe, and here the Tamasheq,
normally spread out over vast distances, are all together again. I say
again, because this has become a regular thing. Every generation it
seems spends time as a refugee. There are students here who spent
their first 6 years in refugee camps during the rebellion of the
1990’s.

Although there are many people here and the camps are about 5km x 2km,
there is space, there is air, it is really just like being in one
large village. People have built homes much like they may have at
home. Grass matting, blankets and UNHCR plastic cover a frame of
sticks. Most families have a UNHCR tent complemented by their home
made shelters, some extending to large family compounds.

The women organise the children and the kitchen, the kids learn to
keep house and run errands, the young watch videos on their computers
or listen to music on their phones and the men – well there’s not much
of a living to be earned so they busy themselves with gathering news
from home, meeting and greeting and pondering their calamitous
situation.

Behind the daily procedures and the normal communal harmony, there is
a far off look in adult’s eyes. The future is very unclear, this
crisis feels more serious than others, and people who once were very
pro Malian and wanted nothing of these rebellions, now wonder how they
can ever call themselves Malian at all. “The very word, Mali, fills me
with fear now” says Randiwt Ansar, a student from Bamako who has had
to inscribe in a university in Burkina.

For me it is a pleasure to be here. I relax in the camp, visit
friends, take in their stories and discuss the situation. Wherever I
go I am warmly greeted, welcomed into tents or onto mattresses in the
shade to discuss, we have many teas, I am fed and accommodated and
watered – it is just like being in the desert.

Just as in their homeland, so here we are in an homogenous world:
there are only Tamashek around. This gives the camps a strong sense of
community.

We all miss their desert with its vast openness, its fresh winds, the
cool of the night and the early morning, the oases, the pools of azure
blue water in granite hills, their wells, their animals, their music,
their parties, the freedom of roaming in the great Sahara – all this
is another life away.

Here in the Sahel they are in sparse bush, the temperatures are
greater, the air less fresh, the nights getting stickier as the dry
season heats up towards the rains in June. Occasionally there are
mosquitos, and when the rains come they will be plenty and this they
are not used to.

If they were their animals the change in climate would have killed
them off by now – even the camel cannot cope with too much variation
of climate and forage.

People complain mainly of the interruption to their lives, of being
tired, wanting their lives back. On the plus side, whole families and
communities are catching up with each other, students have all their
old school friends about, large extended families are re-uniting and
everywhere we go we spot old friends.

The future is very uncertain and it is not an exaggeration to say they
are a people fearing worse to come, wondering when, and for some if,
they might go home. One thing is for certain, they can be asked to
return by their government, by France, by the UN and ECOWAS, but until
they feel safe from their national military, they will staying put.

For now we are safe and doing fine in Burkina, if only it wasn’t so hot!