War correspondent Daniel Howden on life at Hôtel La Colombe in newly liberated Timbuktu.
It would be fair to say that the Hotel Colombe wasn’t ready to receive guests. Since closing down at the end of March last year when the latest incarnation of the global Jihad swept south out of the Sahara desert and into Timbuktu it had been quietly falling apart. The hotel’s faultlessly polite manager Mohamed Toure had little to do after that other than doze the days away in the shade on the Colombe’s front step.
It stayed that way until last week, when a convoy of war reporters appeared 10 months to the day from the hotel’s closure, arriving hard on the heels of a French expeditionary force that drove the Islamic militants back into the wastes of northern Mali. Their sudden arrival was hard to comprehend for Mr Toure: “I never expected to see another European.”
Outside the hotel, the whole of Timbuktu, with its dry-mud mosques and storied libraries, dressed itself in the tricolore and rampaged through the dusty alleys yelling: “vive la France, vive le Mali!”
The literalist sharia law that had been imposed on the famous tolerant city was over. Television sets were playing soccer matches, girls were talking to boys and music was suddenly everywhere.
The singer Akia Malouda Coulibaly was entertaining a small crowd outside her house swaying her considerable frame in a vivid green dress: “We haven’t danced or sung while they’ve been here,” she said of the militants. “We’ve been prisoners.”
Back at the hotel, the staff as if woken from a deep sleep, tried to remove at least some of the Sahara from long-closed rooms. Nightfall in desert city meant darkness as the power had long since been disconnected. Timbuktu’s first night of liberté on the hotel terrace was lit by the glow of a dozen journalists’ laptops with the clanking soundtrack provided of hastily-purchased generators as news of the liberation was transmitted to the rest of the world. In the absence of a phone network—the transmitter masts had been destroyed during the fighting—a cluster of satellite dishes decorated the rooftop. The hotel served journalists the local specialty of roasted goat stuffed with couscous, a reminder of a long past occupation by the Moroccans.
After a cold night spent on unwashed sheets and lightly-sanded blankets, Tuesday morning saw restored light and electricity but brought the realisation that there was no running water. Corridors of cracked walls and dirt-encrusted armchairs spoke of neglect just as the empty swimming pool reminded of lighter days.
These seemed small concerns laid next to a tour through the ransacked Ahmed Baba Institute—one of the great repositories of learning in the Maghreb region. Thousands of historic manuscripts had been emptied from their handcrafted boxes and thrown on a bonfire in a spiteful parting gesture from the Jihadis. Antique leather binders had been scorched and disfigured in the fire while blackened fragments of science and literature blew in the breeze. Padding around in the ash was a bewildered Abdoulaye Cisse, the resident historian, noting the catalog numbers on the boxes and trying to estimate the losses. Some 2,000 manuscripts had been destroyed or stolen. “The Jihadis know how much value they represented to Mali, to Africa and the entire world. They are at war and they wanted to hurt us.”
Wednesday morning at the Colombe, the electricity and water return for a few precious hours. But the mood on the street had darkened with a wave of reprisals against the Arab and Tuareg communities, whom residents accuse of collaborating with the AL-Q’aida affiliates during their occupation. Wild-eyed young men smashed open padlocked storefronts as a prelude to stripping them bare. Everything was taken from iron roof sheets to wooden shelves and metal door frames. The anger was palpable.
Sitting cross-legged on a beautifully woven rug in the comparative gloom of his reception room, the meticulously mannered Imam of Timbuktu declined to be interviewed. He considered his own words to be potentially dangerous in the tense political climate of a divided country. He did, however, want us to listen to someone else’s words. Taking out his smartphone and swiping the touch screen he played a recording of a sermon by an Egyptian preacher. A former Jihadi who has since moved to Belgium, he spoke in French with passages of Arabic, in an impassioned call to young Muslims to turn away from violent fundamentalism and remember that “Islam is not about toughness, it is about kindness.”
The Imam says he asked one of the extremist groups which took power in northern Mali to listen to this sermon and allow it to be played to their followers. Their leaders refused.
Thursday begins with the bitter and sweet of instant coffee and honeyed flat bread as basic supplies return to the hotel kitchen. In the courtyard among the broadcasters, turbaned trinket sellers have laid out a dark blanket with wood carvings, waxed cotton shirts and Tuareg paraphernalia. The framed posters from Mali’s tourist board, boasting of “Timbuktu the Mysterious” start to look less like relics. The night before, alcohol had made a low-key return to the menu. Suspiciously grimy bottles or warm Guinness were being sold for outrageous prices. Apparently they had been buried nearby during the fundamentalist occupation and had been dug up along with the beloved but forbidden American Legend cigarettes.
On the second floor of the artisans’ market, Baba has unbolted the door to Radio al-Farouk. With a smile like the sun outside he flicked cobwebbed switches and prepared to put the station back on air. Hunting around for music he realised the studio was emptied. No matter, pulling out his phone and he was in no doubt what the moment called for: Ali Farka Toure, the grand-daddy of desert blues, who brought Mali’s haunting music to the attention of the wider world.
Timbuktu’s own town crier was already walking the streets with a wailing megaphone announcing that schools would reopen the next day. Children dancing wildly in the wreck of a looted shop to Malian reggae didn’t pay him much heed.
Cigarettes and stout, desert blues and cavorting children; a serenely calm Imam and an irrepressible DJ; Mali has started to feel more like its old self. The closest thing to tourists are dusty journalists and heavily-armed French soldiers. The only Arab or Tuareg left in town is a half-mad veteran of Gaddafi’s army who wanders the lanes of Timbuktu playing the fool. He wears a green beret and three different army belts in shades of green and khaki to commemorate the desert campaigns he has fought. No-one pays him much heed despite his fairer skin and the rancorous hatred that the repressive period of sharia law has left behind. When asked what this war was for he has no doubt: “It’s not about religion, it’s about racism,” he said. And it’s not something that he expects to see a cure for in his lifetime.