8 May 2013

Mali: Life in Timbuktu After the Islamists

Three months after French forces liberated Timbuktu from Ansar Dine Islamists, 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. Flies buzz around. 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 (Defenders of the Faith) Islamists, who had occupied Timbuktu for the past 10 months, were driven out by French forces.

But appearances can be deceptive, one woman who sells fish at the market told DW. "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 (Ansar Dine) occupation, nothing has changed," she says emphatically, "and anyone who says otherwise is lying."

Reign of terror

The period during which the Muslim extremists ruled in 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, 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, French troops arrived and drove out the Islamists. 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

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, German food aid organization Welthungerhilfe has 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 Welthungerhilfe 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."

French forces are welcome

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 forces to stay in Mali. "Even if it is not dangerous now, it will get risky when French forces pull out. They 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.

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