Normally when I say I've been to Mali, the only people who have ever even heard of it are tropical disease specialists. Even when I say "Timbuktu," and people recognize the name in a vaguely "Madagascar" sense, they don't know it has anything to do with Mali. And, as a matter of fact, soon it may not. When I visited Mali in December 2008, I had a few brief run-ins with the fearsome Tuaregs. We hired a guide in Timbuktu, Mohammed, who was a Tuareg, although he seemed more like a college student than a Tuareg. He brought us up into the Sahara to a Tuareg desert encampment where we could trade stuff we didn't need to bring back to the States-- everything from cans of sardines and rolls of toilet paper to my fancy REI trekking poles-- for the worthless junk they wanted to get rid of.
In one of my "How Safe Is?" posts from 2008, I talked about the Tuaregs a little.
Roland and I were traipsing around Sanga last week-- a place so foreign to the American experience that one would have to be on another planet to find something more exotic-- when we ran into a gaggle of American Peace Corp volunteers on holiday. They're stationed around West Africa, mostly Mali and Burkina Faso I gathered, and the State Department and U.S. Embassy in Bamako have decreed that no Peace Corp volunteers are allowed to venture north of some imaginary line (like around Mopti, I think), which means no Timbuktou. They said it is too dangerous because of Tuareg bandits on the roads-- and that the local airlines, C.A.M. and M.A.E., are too dangerous (i.e., non-compliant with FAA guidelines) for Americans to fly on-- so that their employees could not go to the northern two-thirds of the country.
We spent a few days in Timbuktu, which gets bad-mouthed by most tourists as not worth the trip. They're wrong. Timbuktou is fascinating and exotic and if it doesn't live up to your dreams of the 13th century or to Paul Bowles' Sheltering Sky, get real and open up to what actually is being offered there. As for danger... there's nothing remotely dangerous, other than a difficult road getting there, the bad exhaust fumes from motorbikes in town and the fucking mosquitos (we've just given up on not being bitten; it's not possible. Just learn to love the Malarone.)
We were waiting for a couple hours for the ferry to take us across the Niger on the way to Timbuktou and the settlement there is a Bella one. Until 1973's epoch drought nearly wiped out the Tuareg's camels and herds, the Bella had been their slaves. In 1973, basically because the Tuareg couldn't feed them anymore, they emancipated them-- although I have heard that there are still some small services that many of them still render to their former masters (like when there is a wedding or something). Anyway, this Bella settlement was all festive and bustling like all the villages we visited in Mali, when a couple of pickup trucks filled with Tuaregs pulled up to the bank of the river. Suddenly things got much quieter. Many of the little children seemed to disappear. It reminded me of a scene from Star Wars when some alien warrior people dropped by a space cafe. Anyway, the Tuaregs were pretty well-armed with swords and daggers and God knows what else and they don't seem to smile much; no chatty bonjours and they certainly don't ask you for a Bic or an empty water bottle or candy. The Tuareg War ended in the mid-90's though and they seem to be peaceable enough (except around Kidal) and way in the northern Sahara where Mali, Algeria and Mauritania share vast trackless wastes. In Timbuktou, they were certainly easy enough to get along with.
In fact, one of our most memorable adventures was when our guide, Mohammed, took us out into the desert one night to meet some Tuaregs who had just come from Araouane to trade for millet. They were also open to trade for the stuff we no longer needed-- mostly stuff Roland had picked up at the 99 cent store before coming here-- like a pair of cheap extra sunglasses-- as well as my REI walking sticks, half a dozen cans of sardines, shaving kits from Air France, a t-shirt, a roll of toilet paper, organic mosquito repellent that seems to attract mosquitos, etc. We got some nice Tuareg "silver" bracelets, a pipe and an agate necklace-- and had a long Tuareg tea ceremony before this whole thing got started... all by the light of the moon and stars. The Tuareg basically live their lives by the light of the moon and the stars.
At the end of last year, events in Mali forced me to reconsider and recommend that travelers take Mali off the itinerary-- too dangerous for tourists now. The Tuaregs are on the warpath. That was about random kidnappings of tourists. Now we're talking about a civil war. The problem is that Tuareg mercenaries who had been hired by Qadaffi have returned to Mali... with state of the art weapons, better weapons than the Malian armed forces have. And they want their own country, Azawad.
[President Amadou Toumani] Toure blamed freshly-armed fighters returning from Libya for attacks on military patrols outside the northeastern town of Aguelhoc, which has become a flashpoint in the struggle between the military and the rebels.
The military was "unable to enter Aguelhoc where elements of Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group of former fighters from Libya and a group of deserters from our army were well positioned," Toure said, according to the state-run L'essor newspaper.
"The fighting was hard and we lost men, and equipment was destroyed."
The growing insurgency is also raising concerns in Washington, which sees the small, poor nation as an important ally against AQIM, the sub-Saharan al Qaeda group.
"The situation is unpredictable and instability could spread. Private citizens have not been targeted, but the MNLA has indicated via its websites that it intends to conduct military operations across northern Mali," the U.S. State Department said as part of a new travel warning issued last week.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the rebel attacks, saying Saturday that "the United States is deeply concerned by continuing incidents of violence."
The influx of fighters returning from Libya has re-energized the Tuareg insurgency, which seeks to wrest control of three northern regions, according to the global intelligence firm Stratfor.
"Mali has experienced perhaps the most significant external repercussions from the downfall of the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi," it said in a recent analysis.
Gadhafi endeared himself to Malians by funding the construction of a popular mosque in the capital Bamako, and helped pay for a Malian government complex that remains under construction.
He is also accused of backing the Tuaregs in Mali and Niger during the 1990s.
So it came as no surprise that Malian Tuaregs willingly went to Libya to fight for Gadhafi as he fought to keep hold of the reigns of his regime which crumbled in August, Libya's new government has said.
After Gadhafi's death in October, heavily armed Tuareg fighters began returning home and launching attacks on the Malian army, Mali's government said.
The nomadic Tuaregs, who are considered an indigenous tribe in the region, are spread across Mali, Libya, Algeria, Niger and Burkino Faso.
In Mali, the Tuareg have long called for the creation of an independent state-- and have risen up against the Malian government a number of times since the 1960s.
The latest uprising began to take root late last year but gained momentum in January when the rebels began attacking towns in northern Mali.
The Malian army clashed with rebels in the Timbuktu region last week, killing 20 people, taking a dozen prisoners and seizing vehicles and weapons, according to the country's defense ministry. It reported no casualties on the government side.
But the rebels claim to have either attacked or seized at least six towns in recent weeks, including some in the Timbuktu region, according to its website. The claims appear to be supported by reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross that thousands have fled the region ahead of fighting.
So now Mali, one of the poorest countries on the planet, has 22,000 refugees feeling the latest Tuareg outbreak into neighboring countries, all of which are just as poverty-stricken. And if they capture one of the major towns for real-- a Kidal, Gao, or even Timbuktu, it will turn into a real catastrophe. Desperately-needed foreign aid groups are packing up and leaving. Meanwhile the tourists kidnapped in November... no one has heard a thing-- other than Al-Qaeda's north African branch threatening to kill them all if the military tries to rescue them. So, let me reiterate: no travel to Mali. Tuscany is nice and I bet there are some bargains to be found in Greece. And you can listen to Bassekou on CD or on YouTube:
UPDATE: Getting Worse
Officially the Tuaregs, the warlike nomadic "Blue men" of the Sahara, gave up slavery in Mali, where there are nearly a million of them (half the world's population of Tuaregs) in 1973. Supposedly. Whenever I came upon groups of Bella-- the former slaves-- and a bunch of Tuaregs came by, the temperature would drop precipitously and everyone would stop talking. Women and children would disappear. Something was cooking and it sure wasn't kosher. It appeared to me that the Bella in the Tuareg encampment we visited were slaves. I know Mali's neighbors to the east and west still have slaves. Neighboring Niger finally outlawed slavery in 2003 but something between 5 and 10% of the population are still slaves. The Tuaregs consider it their right to hold slaves and they don't tend to recognize national governments. And now they've declared their own country in northern Mali, Azawad-- already a human rights crisis out of control. In the best of times there's no actual rule of law. Republicans should move there and see how they like it.
The UN refugee agency reported Friday that more than 44,000 people have fled into neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.
The Malian Army is trying to fight back and it's looking more and more like a full scale civil war everyday. They are desperate to keep the rebels from capturing one of the larger towns in the north-- Kidal, Gao or Timbuktu-- but AP reported that Tuareg rebels attacked Hombori, a town in the south, killing the village chief and ransacking the town for weapons.