Life in Timbuktu After the Islamists

Life in Timbuktu
Arabs are trying to push south of the Sahara and take more African territory

AFRICANGLOBE – Three months after Malian and French forces liberated Timbuktu from Tuareg and Ansar Dine terrorists, life in the historic city is still not as it was. Many residents are still coming to terms with their experiences.

Fish, mutton, onions and tomatoes are piled up on little wooden tables. This is Timbuktu’s market. Buying food in this ancient city, which lies on the edge of the Sahara in northern Mali, doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Life seems to be slowly returning to normal, after Ansar Dine and Tuareg terrorists, who had occupied Timbuktu for the past 10 months, were driven out by Malian and French forces.

But appearances can be deceptive, one woman who sells fish at the market said. “This fish costs 250 West African CFA (50 US cents, 38 eurocents) but customers barter the price down to 150 CFA.”

That means the trader earns the equivalent of just 1.50 euros a day, that is if anyone is willing to buy her fish. “After the terrorist occupation, nothing has changed,” she says emphatically, “and anyone who says otherwise is lying.”

Reign of Terror

The period during which the Muslim extremists invaded Timbuktu left many residents traumatized. They need no invitation to describe their experiences and fears during those ten months.

Women had to cover up completely, music and cigarettes were banned, accused thieves actually had a hand chopped off.

Timbuktu’s mayor Halle Ousmane is concerned about the city’s future

This was a huge burden for Halle Ousmane, Mayor of Timbuktu. He was also constantly wondering, “Do we really still have friends? People seemed to have forgotten about us.”

By the end of January, Malian and French troops arrived and drove out the terrorists. Now, after wild and joyful celebrations, disillusionment has set in. Three months on, life is extremely difficult. “80 percent of the population are day laborers,” the mayor said.

“They usually work in the morning, in the afternoon they get their money and thus provide for their families.” Prior to the coming of the Islamists, more than 50 percent of Timbuktu’s revenue came from tourism. “But there are no jobs anymore,” Ousmane said, “just like there are no more tourists.”

Rice Rations

Great Timbuktu
Many of the historic buildings were destroyed by the Arab invaders

Early in the morning, in a small square in Sankore, a district of Timbuktu, not far from the city hall, men and women are waiting patiently for their food rations. They want to be home again before the punishing heat sets in.

Timbuktu residents use all means to carry food rations

Since late April, foreign food aid organizations have partnered with a local NGO, Malian Association for survival in the Sahel (AMSS), to distribute rice. They give priority to families who have no means to feed themselves.

Mahamane Maiga who works with a local NGO believes the aid is absolutely necessary.

“People have been badly affected by the situation, some have lost almost everything,” Maiga said. Support is important, he added, since “food gives you the strength to take up economic activities again.”

But that could take time. It is still unclear when tourists will return to the city, and the resumption of agricultural activities is a slow process. Many of the fields lie outside the city center and are therefore considered far less protected.

The fragile security situation remains a concern to many. So far, the military has concentrated on securing the center of Timbuktu and the airport, but not the surrounding areas.

Abba Maiga, who came for a sack of rice, is not reassured. He would prefer the French and African forces to stay in Mali. “Even if it is not dangerous now, it will get risky when French forces pull out. The Arab terrorists were in control of the area, and they also have the necessary equipment.”

Mayor Ousmane Halle knows these fears only too well. “The population does not understand that the French forces will leave,” he said. He would also have preferred them to stay longer. At least until the city has fully returned to normal.