Heading home to Timbuktu: Some relish return of freedoms, other flee in fear of reprisals

Not a single light could be seen in my hometown of Timbuktu as we approached it at night just days after it was liberated from the al-Qaida-linked militants who ruled the city for nearly 10 months.

I grew up in a Timbuktu that was open to the whole world, a city of intellectual richness that welcomed foreign visitors and had a tourism industry. While known for its remoteness, tourists flocked here to ride camels and sleep in the desert under the stars with the nomadic Tuareg communities. My city long celebrated as a site of Islamic learning also had gained fame for its proximity to an annual international music festival.

The last time I had visited was in May, a month after the Islamic rebels seized Timbuktu. After my visit I reported on developments here from the distant capital of Bamako, straining for information over the telephone each week about what had become of this city I love.

Soon Islamists were whipping women and girls for going out without veils and they even amputated the hand of a suspected thief. Flights and public transport to Timbuktu eventually tapered off as the conflict deepened, and it became too difficult and dangerous for me to make another visit. My parents, brothers, sisters and their families left Timbuktu in the days before French and Malian troops reclaimed it. I arrived shortly after the event, driving in a journalist convoy of four-by-four vehicles onto the sand-blanketed streets of my city.

The morning after I arrived, I saw French armored personnel carriers and soldiers patrolling Timbuktu, famous for a mosque built in 1325-1326. Electricity and phone lines had been intentionally cut as the Islamists fled the French and Malian military advance.

Timbuktu was a city where all of Mali's ethnic groups lived in harmony in recent years and where all religions had been respected. This was the city I still had hoped to find. But the Islamist occupation laid bare hostilities toward Arabs who have lived here for centuries. While my family and many other Arabs did not support the jihadists, some African residents of Timbuktu were suspicious of anyone belonging to the ethnic groups represented among the ranks of the Islamists.

As I roamed around the city, I found that people had broken into and pillaged the shops of neighbors who were Arab and Tuaregs. More than a dozen shops selling anything from blankets to tea lay in ruins at the market. Angry residents also had ransacked their homes in retribution for perceived links to the al-Qaida-linked militants who imposed Islamic rule.

My heart raced when I thought about returning to my family's own house.

When they left their house, they had asked our security guard to watch over it. When I showed up, he was so surprised to see me that for several minutes he just kept expressing his disbelief.

"Baba, is it really you?" he asked over and over.

The tables inside were covered in dust and some chairs were cast about in disarray, but there was no damage. Apparently no one had broken in. I tried to imagine the speed with which my father locked up as the last one to leave, not knowing when his family might next have tea here together.

The whole place had the air of abandonment. No sounds of children playing and squabbling. The kitchen that was always so animated and full of life was now devoid of people.

The only place where I was happy was the garden at the side of the house, where the plants and tomatoes were thriving thanks to the tap water that thankfully was not cut during the crisis.

Walking around my old neighborhood, friends acted as though I'd fallen from the sky. My former neighbors greeted me warmly, shaking my hands, kissing me and welcoming me home. They asked for news of my family. I hadn't spoken with them yet. They did not even know that I was back in Timbuktu. Mostly my neighbors were stunned to see an Arab returning to Timbuktu at a time when there was so much anger being unleashed.

I wanted to spend the night in our family home, but I would be the only one there. It just wasn't the same. So instead I returned to a hotel.

The Islamists are now gone but their occupation has left a scar on Timbuktu. The town must now reconcile with itself.


Baba Ahmed can be reached at www.twitter.com/Babahmed1