Mali Crisis 
Fear and Loathing in Timbuktu

As the Western media finally turn their attention to the crisis in Mali, Chloe Cornish looks deeper into the human stories behind the conflict in the region

Issa's Story. Photo by Joni Essex

Issa’s Story. Photo by Joni Essex

The solid ring of metal around my neck loses its chill as it absorbs body heat. Once the necklace was warmed by a Saharan sun. The slender collar was bent and teased into existence on the work bench of a skilled Tuareg craftsman, who etched patterns of history onto the silver alloy, embedding it with shards of ebony. It’s a long way from home.

So is the man who made it. Aguissa no longer works in that market in Timbuktu, perched on the edge of the Sahara desert in Mali. The city is a dusty treasure trove. Protected as a UNESCO world heritage site, Timbuktu was a spiritual and intellectual capital of Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is still home to three impressive mosques of this Golden Age, and many ancients tombs belonging to Muslim saints. As for the city’s learned heritage, there are around 700,000 ancient manuscripts secreted away in 60 or so private libraries.

This wealth of history has always been at risk from the encroaching desert, but recently Timbuktu’s shrines have been ravaged by pickaxes and shovels wielded by Salafi Islamists. It may not have had anything to do with him, yet Aguissa’s light skin now marks him out as belonging to a people no longer welcome here. The Tuareg craftsman has been forced to flee his home.

The semi-nomadic Tuareg have long believed the northern territories of Mali, which they call Azawad, to be rightfully theirs. The recent history of the land has been scarred by skirmishes between rebels and the army.

A rebellion against the government that began early in 2012 was joined by Islamists militants with links to Al Qaeda, many that had travelled from Libya. Soon, dissatisfied soldiers from the Malian army deposed President Toure in a coup, blaming his poor response to the growing war. The confusion was quickly capitalized upon by the mixture of rebel fighters, who gained ground in the north. In April, the Tuareg MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) declared independence for northern Mali.

But although they had initially embraced an alliance with the Islamist rebels, it became increasingly clear that the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) movement had different aims to the secular Tuareg separatists, the MNLA. When the Ansar Dine started to impose Sharia law on the towns they captured, Tuareg fighters tried to distance themselves. And by the summer, the Islamists had turned on the Tuaregs.

However, for many Malians the sets of rebels were now inextricably intertwined. This was to herald a backlash against all Tuareg, whether or not they had been involved in the fighting. Towns including Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal suffered terribly under Ansar Dine rule. Women were publicly whipped for being seen without a veil; people accused of theft had their hands cut off; stall-holders were forced to get rid of skirts and dresses in favour of niqabs; music, the sound of Mali’s soul, was banned, as was football.

French military intervention this year chased the Islamists out and into the desert. But by association, the Tuareg had been stained with these atrocities. Mali’s former state of relative tolerance between tribes was shattered.

The craftsman Aguissa, Issa for short, got out of Mali as the tide turned against the Tuareg in March last year. Escaping the Islamists that were moving into Timbuktu was difficult: there were no buses, few boats on the Niger River, and the rare owners of four wheel drive vehicles could demand a fortune to get you out of danger. It took the rest of Issa’s family weeks to escape to the capital Bamako, where they have moved into a cramped compound, stuffed with others like them. In the scramble to get out they lost all their possessions.

Issa made it to Dakar, Senegal, where he managed to obtain a share of a stall where he could sell his wares. But he was suddenly taken ill, and during a spell in hospital the let of the stall was passed on to someone else.

Now Issa has nowhere to work. He tried walking the streets to sell his jewellery, but Senegalese police apprehended him, taking away his money and goods. Issa has nowhere to live. Unable to read or write, he has always supported himself by selling traditional Tuareg jewellery and tooled leather boxes, his primary trade. In better times he etched Tuareg symbols onto the ‘heavy’ silver and silver alloy: suns and moons, domed Tuareg tents, and slabs of salt, representing the lucrative salt trade historically controlled by the Tuareg. In hollow ‘tchirot’ pendants he would secrete verses of the Koran, which would then be worn for luck. And he would lovingly fold pungent leather into boxes, to be punched with more Tuareg symbols. But now he has no money with which to buy materials.

Issa is exhausted and starving. Yet his grandfather, fearing for his family’s safety, is sending seven relatives to stay with Issa in Senegal. With luck, Issa hopes they will all be able to return to Timbuktu within two months. But with a crippled tourist industry, which craftsmen like Issa depend on, their survival would still be uncertain.

The proud Tuareg culture once roamed freely over the Sahel region, before lines were drawn on maps and their lands were annexed by colonial powers. Their traditional belief in spirits blends with Islam. Although some wealthy men are polygamous, organisation of Tuareg society is intriguingly matriarchal. Women own the tent and possessions, and are the instigators of divorce. And in a role reversal of normal clothing rules, men wear veils and women do not.

Music is shared and enjoyed by all. Women drum and ululate, while men dance round the camp fire with swords under the star-heavy sky.

Desert life may sound beautiful, but it is hard. Drought has increasingly sent the ‘white Malian’ Turaeg into urban areas to try and make a living. In an environment where resources are scant and fought for this influx has caused the town-dwelling black African tribes, such as the Bella, to resent the competition.

Timbuktu was liberated by the French army in January, but Issa hasn’t gone back. It has been widely reported that reprisals against Tuareg are far from over, that Tuareg are disappearing to refugee camps in Burkina Faso, to Morocco, to Mauritania, to Senegal, into the desert. When the spectre of violence retreats, will they return to Mali and re-establish an uneasy harmony once more? Or are the Tuareg fated to wander in search of new lands?