When I arrived on Wednesday night, I was surprised to not find my fixer waiting for me at the airport. Our guide, Halasan, had been stopped by the Malian army. They had shot at his car, and when they then dragged him from it, he thought he was finished. However, after lengthy discussions, and thanks to political connections, our fixer was able to get Halasan released, but the Malian army confiscated his vehicle, gun, and satellite phone. He was eventually able to get to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, late Thursday night.
We set about finding another vehicle to take us to northern Mali. A few drivers dropped out at the last minute. Desperate, we caught a bus to Ohigouya on Saturday morning. Still without a vehicle of our own, we caught a bush taxi to Djibo, 30km from Mali’s Boni region. Halasan tried to contact the Tuaregs to organize our departure to meet them the next day, however, fearful of their own security, they had disappeared. We spent the night in a local hotel with very basic conditions. At 6am on Sunday morning, Halasan went into town to try to organize for us to head out. There, he came across a Tuareg family who were scared. They had just arrived from the town of Gousi, which they had fled for fear of reprisals from the Malian army on the Tuareg population.
In fact, each time there had been a Tuareg uprising in the past, the reprisals they suffered after had been heavy and bloody. Approximately 1700 of them were killed in the aftermath of the 1990 rebellion. Summary executions were carried out in Gousi, Gao, Lere, Kidal, Gondam, and in the many IDP camps in the desert.
As soon as Sidi Mohamed Ag Askiou’s family heard that the Malian army had passed Mopti, they grabbed some of their belongings and jumped into a lorry, heading to the Mentao refugee camps in Burkina Faso, which fill up and empty according to the rhythm of the Tuareg rebellions and subsequent repression. They travelled all day, trembling with fear as French war planes flew overhead. Sidi Mohamed’s niece, Rocky, may only be 18 but she has is nursing a baby boy, and has a 5-year-old daughter too. She left her husband behind, to take care of their animals, not knowing if she will see him again. We travelled with them to Mentao north refugee camp. Lying empty since the 1993 amnesty, which saw Malian army soldiers who had committed crimes and atrocities go unpunished, the camp is now full again. There were already 1700 people there last week, but 2-5 families have been arriving daily for the past few days, all fleeing possible reprisals, out of fear. They all respect the French army’s fight against the Islamists in the country, but fear the Malian army and the lack of discernment there is between themselves (the Tuaregs), the MNLA (the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad - a Tuareg political organization), Ansar Dine, and the terrorists. They won’t go back to their land whilst the Malian army is present. They still hope that the French army will at some stage rely on the MNLA instead of the Malian army, to re-conquer the north of the country. If not, they feel they may see the end of the Tuaregs’ presence in Mali.
Most of the families left some men behind with the animals, who will rejoin them later with the herds, on foot. We decide to follow their journey in the opposite direction, so that I can photograph the fleeing caravans. We head off on our route, through the bush. Without even knowing it, we enter Mali. Along the way, we see lorries loaded with belongings, and full of Tuaregs. Last week, the journey cost CFA 5000 (approx USD $10), but now it costs ten times that at CFA 50,000 (USD $100) per person for this hellish journey.
As we come round a bend, we are surprised as we come across 30-40 people lying face down on the ground, with their hands on their heads. It’s already too late, we have walked right into an ambush. Heavily armed men in military uniforms stop our vehicle, and throw us to the ground with the rest. I am wearing the full hijab, or abaya. I am afraid, very afraid. I don’t think they have seen me properly yet. Here, in these Malian lands, I would be worth a lot of money as a hostage... I think of my daughter. What was I thinking coming here? I recall the words to the Lord’s Prayer. I am lying in front of Halasan, and I quietly ask him who these men are. He doesn’t know. I raise my head a little, but he tells me not to. I sense that he is scared too, we all are. As I look between the wheels of the car, I catch the gaze of one of the refugees, and I can’t tell if he is sweating, or whether those are tears running down his face. Someone grabs me by the hair, or rather by the veil. I tell myself this is it, I have been spotted. I think of the recent hostage-taking in Algeria, and tell myself that they are separating me, the foreigner, from the rest. I am fucked. A man takes me to what I assume is his leader. I ask pleadingly, “Who are you?” I get no response, only a hard stare. Their bounty lies at his feet; my camera bag (I managed to keep my cameras on me, hidden under my hijab), my computer bag, and other belongings. He shows me the suitcase, he wants to open it, he wants the key. It’s Halasan’s. They go and get him as they push me into the car. It’s a good sign, I find some hope again, I no longer think we are going to die. We’re going to get out of here. I am even able to take a photo of the refugees lined up on the floor. We are all released, and they shove our bags into the back of the car. We don’t bother asking for the stolen items back. They have taken our money, our phones, iPod, iPhone, etc. To my great surprise, they have left me with my computer and satellite phone. We have no local currency left, but luckily I had a few hundred Euros well hidden. It’s nothing to get excited about, but we are still thrilled to be alive. I do feel humiliated though, there were so many of us, and only about 5-6 of them, but they were armed, and with a gun pointed at you, there is not much you can do. I am also ashamed at not having been able to help those poor refugees, at the hands of their unscrupulous aggressors. I want to stop at the next village, but the driver say we can’t, “They’re undoubtedly from that village anyway.”
We drive for many kilometres. I am roasting hot under my veil, but the landscapes we are driving through are stunning, it looks and feels like the American Far West. When we arrive at our destination of Boni, the driver warns us that the town is still in the hands of Islamists. Halasan orders me to crouch down in my seat as much as possible and to hide. I am sweating litres. He doesn’t want us to stay in Boni, it’s too dangerous. What if our earlier aggressors alerted dangerous individuals in the area? The driver finds a friend of his who is about to head off to Douentza, the frontline currently. He asks us to pay him a second time, as he had had all of his previous payment stolen earlier. We are only too happy to get away as we climb into the next vehicle and head to Douentza.
The French and Malian armies have just arrived. They encountered no resistance. It is already night time when we arrive, but there are French flags dotted around the place. We look for a hotel, but they are all occupied by the French and Malian soldiers. Vehicles aren’t allowed to go any further, so we set out on foot in the dark along the road, seeking a hotel called ‘Les Falaises’ where the French are staying. We do indeed find them there when we arrive. They are happy to see us, and are welcoming. We tell them about our misadventures, and I explain that I am heading to Konna. We’re in luck, a convoy is about to leave, and they take us with them. There are various vehicles, all with their lights off. Two hours later, we are in Konna. It is tense as we enter the town, and the Malians start shouting, caught unawares. The French shout back, “We’re French, we’re French...” The captain warns us, “Malians are trigger happy.” The convoy is heading on to Sevare. The captain insists, “Really, don’t you want to come with us to Sevare? I would be more comfortable if you did.” No, we don’t want to. The French hand us over to Lt. Adama of the Malian army. To our confusion, he takes us quite far out of town. “The town is not very secure.” I am surprised as I thought it had been secured. We get off the road to head a short distance into the bush. The vehicles spread out. The Lieutenant warns it is going to be cold. We get under our covers on the ground and go to sleep under the stars. I don’t get much sleep, as it’s so cold.
At daybreak I take some photos. The Lieutenant makes a call to his superiors... we know this is a bad sign. He calls me over and tells me I can’t take any more photos. I protest. We have risked our lives to be here, have been robbed, and it is out of the question that I won’t take photos now. The Lieutenant replies, “It’s political.” He has received order, and in case I’m not aware, there are hundreds of journalists in Savare waiting to get into Konna. I try everything I can think of to change his mind, but the Lieutenant is stubborn. In the car, I try to take a photo of a burned out tank on the road leading into Konna. He shouts at me, threatening to confiscate my equipment and to put me in detention. He disembarks us when we reach his soldiers, who have taken over the burnt police station at the entrance to the town. He gives instructions to his Captain to not let himself be overwhelmed by us. He makes me put my camera in my bag, and reiterates his threat; if I take it out again I will be punished. I have another camera hidden under my abaya, and I manage to snap a few frames surreptitiously by lifting one side of it.
A shopkeeper whose business has been burnt down comes over to see us with his booklet, containing his list of complaints. He has written it all down, all the fridges and goods that have been damaged by the fire. He holds onto his booklet, showing it to anyone who will listen. Over the course of the day, the shops opposite the police post start to reopen, and the shopkeepers uncover the damage. Soldiers man the road. A man comes to complain to them. Before they arrived, he was stripped and beaten by Islamists. Today he is wearing a nice new blue tunic. He asks for a soldier to accompany him to the back of the police post so he can go to the toilet. The captain tells one of his men to accompany the old man. Every hour or so, a vehicle tries to enter town. Some are allowed in, others are turned away. In the middle of the day, an overloaded vehicle arrives, full of locals who have returned home. Those who had stayed behind tell us that they had remained hidden and locked inside their homes for the past week. But most of them had taken refuge further to the south. Around midday, three locals bring a cow to the soldiers. At 3pm some fishermen bring them 20kg or so of fish, freshly caught in the Niger River which runs the length of the village. A soldier arrives, pleased with what he has found, having recovered a machine gun from one of the Islamists’ burnt 4x4 vehicles outside the town. He starts to clean it, proudly.
The soldiers still won’t let me take any photos. We have to wait for Colonel Didier. Either the town is not totally safe yet, or there must be some sort of contract of exclusivity in place. Malian army vehicles keep coming in and out of the town. Soldiers come to complain that the French army has not done a good enough job with Douentza, because the Isalmists were aware they were coming and hid in the neighbouring town. That is why they had faced no resistance. We keep waiting for the Colonel, and nightfall approaches. I decide to up the pressure by going on hunger strike. The Captain is annoyed, begging me to stop. But there is nothing doing, I am being stubborn as long as the Colonel won’t give me a reply. I also start asking what will happen if I do start taking photos. Will they really throw me in jail and confiscate my camera kit like Lt. Adama had threatened? I’m not really afraid of prison, as I don’t think they could leave me there for long, but they could easily take all my gear and confiscate what I have already shot, which would put an end to my trip. At 7pm, exhausted with frustration, I give up the fight against the mosquitoes, letting them feast as I fall asleep.
I wake up at 5.30am, when it is still dark. I get ready to escape from my captors, as they have become, but they are on watch in front of us. There is no way to pass unnoticed. Oh well, I decide to go for it, and with a confident walk I cross the road. A soldier calls to stop me, but I pretend not to hear. They run after me. The Captain is awake. I didn’t manage to get far.
At the first light of day, I am amazed to see heavily loaded vehicles heading south. The villagers are leaving again, to hide. But why? I discretely take some photos by lifting the veil of my abaya. At breakfast, I still refuse to eat. The Captain is annoyed. When the Lieutenant arrives, I announce defiantly that I am on hunger strike, and that I won’t end it until I have the Colonel on the phone. He looks at me, exasperated. He makes a phone call. He comes towards me, shouting and barking at me. I can’t understand him, but I see that our belongings have been put in the back of a pickup truck. I am loaded into it too. In three minutes, we are on the road, driving fast in the direction of Sevare, with the promise that we’re going to see the Colonel and will soon be brought back. Instead of the Colonel, we meet a heinous Commander, “You don’t have papers allowing you to go to the zone of combat, I don’t have to listen to you, get out of here.” Commander Keita, in charge of communications, somewhat bothered by how we have been mistreated, and upon seeing the tears of exasperation on my face, tries to justify the situation. “You journalists don’t know how to behave. You dig up the dead to see if they are innocent civilians, but madam, this is war! You journalists are a big problem...” As he gets angrier, he starts shouting at us, “Anyway, these Tuaregs are traitors, they’re lazy, and they’re idle.”
I think that the refugees that we met were right to flee. This Malian army feels humiliated, bitter, and doesn’t care about avoiding this situation turning into a complete mess. In the meantime, here we are at the gates of the town. They dump us by the side of the road, just outside the checkpoint, in the sun, like stray dogs. Word has gone round to not let us into Sevare. We can either catch a bus to Bamako, or try to get back to Burkina Faso. We choose the second option, catching a bus heading for Sekaso, from where I plan to file my photos. We’re told it’s a 4-hour journey... 10 hours later we arrive in Sekaso.
Back in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, I had just one idea in mind: to meet with the Tuareg’s fighting branch, the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad). Each refugee family told us about the MNLA, who are their last hope, and their heroes.
To meet with them, I had to go to northern Mali and cross the border between Burkina Faso and Mali illegally. MNLA commander Akli-Ikhman Ag Souleyman was going back out in the field in a few days, and I had the opportunity to go with him. He is the leader of roughly 400 men in Tessit area of Mali.
I waited for days, as usual, then on Monday, while I was with my Tuareg family hosts in Ougadougou, the lady came in and told me that some men were looking for me. I went outside, and there they were, wearing their turbans, looking beautifully scary. One of them, Marwane, gave me some Tuareg clothing and asked me to wear it. I got dressed and left the hut looking like a Tuareg. In the small shadow of the wall, four Tuaregs were waiting for us. I took my cameras, a sleeping bag and our food reserves - some tea, sugar and a few tins of sardines. I jumped in the front seat of our pickup, and we drove off. On the radio we heard that the MNLA had entered the town of Kidal, which was great news for us. The vice-president called us and arranged with Akli-Ikhman to take us to Kidal.
On the way, I think we got arrested around ten times by police from Burkina Faso, who clearly fear and dislike the Tuareg population. I was renamed Yasmina by our companions. Wearing the Tuareg clothing, I was playing the part of a refugee women without any ID. Apparently, northern Burkina Faso was under terrorist threat, and foreigners were not allowed in the region anymore. At each checkpoint, I held my breath and Akli-Ikham begged his god to let us pass again, and luckily the policemen seemed to believe our story. We were supposed to cross the border at night, but in Dori the police held us for the whole night and only let us go in the morning. The commander was starting to get anxious, each checkpoint was torture, but finally as we were driving through the desert, he told me that we were home, in Azawad.
We passed through a deserted village. In the next village, the commander noticed some new wheel tracks. He asked the villagers whose car it was. They said that the car hadn’t stopped, but that the men were wearing a blue uniform. Were they from the Nigerian or Malian army, or even Islamists? Either way, it was bad news for us, as the fighters we were with had no weapons on them. It was urgent to meet with our escort. Slaloming through the desert, finally I heard a shout. It was a relief, our escort was here; two pickups filled with men holding weapons. They all jumped into each other’s arms, greeting each other, and asking each other about everyone in Tessit, in the refugee camps, and in Ouagadougou.
The sun was going down we finally arrived in Tessit, a small town of 20,000 inhabitants. Most of the Tuaregs, fearing the Malian army, were now in the refugee camps in Burkina Faso. Only the locals of black African ethnicity had remained, with a few brave Tuaregs. They all came to greet Akli-Ikhman. They brought some carpets and food for us. We slept under the stars, on the sand. The commander tried unsuccessfully to reach his contacts in Kidal many times with different satellite phones.
At 5am, as the sun was coming up, the fighters said their prayers. Some people came to see Akli-Ikhman and gave him some worrying news. Some MUJAO fighters (an Islamist group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) were only a few miles away, and at least 70 vehicles had been counted amongst them. Akli-Ikhman gathered his council and had an hour long discussion with his men. The entrance of the town had to be reinforced, to protect the population against the MUJAO. Also, it seems that they had become aware of my presence, therefore putting me and my guests in danger. Akli-Ikhman decided to put me in a secure place, at his parents’ camp nearby.
Plans were made to go to Kidal the next day. It was very important for me to visit this city whilst it was under MNLA protection, to see how people perceived them, and if they had the means to really play a role in security for northern Mali.
When we arrived at Akli-Ikhman’s parents’ place, it was getting dark. The whole camp came to greet him. A goat was killed. Akli was happy to see his father, his sister and his nephews. His wife, children and mother were in Ougadougou. I was amazed by the number of ethnically black African people in the hut; there were around 100 of them in total. Akli explained to me that they were the family’s slaves. They live with the family, and over the years have increased in number. He told me that they cost too much money, and that each year he tries to free them, but they choose to stay with the family, unable to live on their own. He told me that they were eating a lot, but I didn’t see any who looked particularly overweight. He explained that he was from a very ancient noble family, and they had to observe certain some rules. His family are not allowed to cook food or do any housework, women have to sit in a particular way, and the only work that the men can really do is to be fighters. A cold wind meant we felt the need to sleep inside with the family, the slaves and the baby goats.
Early in the morning, a fighter came in with great news from the radio. The French army had agreed to keep the Malian army away from Kidal, and to leave the city under the control of the MNLA and the MIA (the Islamic Movement of Azawad, an Islamist group who split from Ansar Dine in January 2013, disassociation themselves from extremism and terrorism). We all gathered together, listening in silence to the RFI radio station, holding our breath. Akli was very proud, finally the MNLA was getting some recognition. It was agreed, tomorrow we would leave and head to Kidal very early. I visited the whole camp, everybody was so proud of Akli and his men. The MNLA was the only acceptable security and leadership solution for the Tuareg people. They are all fervent Muslims, but are against the extremism of Salafism and Wahabism. For them, religion is a private matter, and should not be imposed on anybody by force. They were sorry that France had abandoned them with Malian people at the end of their colonial rule, but were now optimistic that France was there to repair its previous mistakes.
Akli got in contact with the French army, and they agreed to receive him in Kidal the next day. He organized a gathering with most of his troops, to develop a strategy that they could adopt against the MUJAO. As the men trained, Akli was on his sat phone with the Malian army. To reach Kidal, we had to go through Gao, which was under Malian army control. But to our surprise, the Malian army refused him access to Kidal, and told him that they would shoot him if they saw him. Akli spent hours on the phone with them and the French, but there was no way that the Malian army would let us pass through. The Malian army added that they would soon be in Tessit too. Akli got angry and worried. He vowed to never let the Malian army come to his territory. He promised his people that it would not happen.
He finally told me that I had to go back to Burkina Faso. The advance of the Malian army was a serious matter. It would be a dirty fight, with mortars. He felt he would not be able to protect me anymore. Some of his men would leave their weapons behind, travel with me dressed in peasant clothing, to appear as though they were civilians. He and the others would stay behind and wait for the Malian army, and do everything they could do to prevent them from entering Tessit. I was escorted to another encampment to spend the night. At 4am we left, escorted by Akli to the border and the abandoned village there. In Markoi, the first village after the border, I took off my Tuareg clothing. I was not undercover anymore. I thought it was a good idea, until we got arrested and taken to the police station. For three hours, the police chief asked me where I had been, why, and how I had managed to get into Mali. What I didn’t know is that northern Burkina Faso was now forbidden territory for foreigners. The government had received some serious threats of kidnapping.
This feature was shot in January 2013.
A full edit of 111 images is available on request.