Both in my picture books and in my teen fiction, I have written about the Malian towns of Timbuktu and Mopti. In THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS Al Haji Amadou makes the trip from Timbuktu to Mopti overland to sell his five naughty goats. In HACKING TIMBUKTU the unscrupulous fugitive Moktar Hasim comandeers a fishing boat and makes the same journey, this time on the water.
I have never been to Timbuktu, but last year I had the chance to visit Mopti. It’s a fascinating and ancient town built on three islands in the River Niger. The ancient port still acts as an important trade hub, particularly for the huge slabs of salt brought in from the Sahara Desert. Here is thirty seconds of footage from my trip, just to give an impression of what Mopti looks like:
Sadly, as I write this, Timbuktu is unrecognizable, and Mopti too. Earlier this year, Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists took over Timbuktu. The Tuaregs were fighting for the creation of the independent Tuareg state of Azawad, but their Arabic-speaking brothers in arms had a very different vision: the establishment of Sharia law across the north of Mali (an area the size of France) and the consolidation of a military stronghold capable of launching attacks on a degenerate Western world. By the time the Tuaregs realized the awful truth, it was too late. As the following video shows, the banks in Timbuktu have been looted and heritage sites destroyed. Hospitals are short-staffed. Public schools have been closed and will not re-open until the curriculum is changed according to Islamic values.
The government’s soldiers in Timbuktu and elsewhere put up little resistance – they were outflanked, outgunned and outnumbered, and they quickly withdrew. Now all eyes are on Mopti. The islamic militants in Timbuktu are threatening that the ancient port is next on their list of targets, and are preparing to make the journey from Timbuktu to Mopti.
Timbuktu to Mopti. It’s the innocent picture book journey undertaken by Al Haji Amadou and his goats. It’s the swashbuckling treasure hunt journey undertaken by Moktar Hasim and his pursuers. But this time it’s for real, and it will not be on foot or by boat but overland in stolen Toyota Landcruisers loaded with rocket launchers and heavy-calibre mortars. I am sickened that the beautiful land of Mali, a storybook land in the best possible sense, is now being violated by fanatics who have no respect for history, culture or human life.
In Mopti, a poorly-armed but determined militia awaits. These are not goverment soldiers, these are plucky civilians desperate to reclaim their ravaged country. The New York Times ran an interesting piece on the Mopti front line earlier this month. Realistically, their prospects are not good.
I rang our home town in Burkina Faso last week and spoke to my friend Hama and to local pastor Ali. ‘We have never seen anything like this,’ said Hama. ‘Everyone in town is talking about Mali’s troubles, and there has been violence as close as Boni on the Burkina-Mali border. Alla hoynu tan (May God make it easier).’
I hope that one day I will again be able to write about Mali as a proud, peaceful country where naughty goats raid pumpkin patches and fishing boats parade the mighty Niger river. But until Timbuktu is restored to its rightful landlords, magical Mali will seem a very dark place indeed. Certainly not a place to take children to.