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‘No one who looks like my uncle has been killed here. I still think I’ll find him’: A student follows the trail from Bamako to Timbuktu

Kim Sengupta follows a student’s hunt for his loved one from Bamako to Timbuktu

Amadou Traore sifted through the documents strewn on the floor, some of them Islamist instructions on punishment. He stuffed the papers into his pocket to have them translated from Arabic, just in case they gave any inkling of what might have happened to his uncle after he was led off at gunpoint.

The 24-year-old student was at the home of the governor of Timbuktu. After the governor fled, the jihadists used the building to hold people who had transgressed their uncompromising version of sharia. A visit to another “prison” – a shuttered bank – had proved fruitless. There was just one more place to try.

I had first heard Amadou speak with anxiety about his uncle, Saif Moussa Traore, in the capital Bamako three weeks ago. The student was seeking work as a translator after the French military intervention made the conflict ravaging Mali a global news story. He had a good command of English to offer, but his real reason for seeking the job was the opportunity it may give him to get to Timbuktu quickly and find the man he called his real father.

Saif Moussa, a 49-year-old electrician and devout Muslim, had questioned the Islamists over their interpretation of sharia, doing so through a public council they had set up. He was rebuffed and arrested when he persisted with his complaints.

Opposite the governor’s house, Amadou stopped outside what used to be the monument to Al-Faroukh, the traditional protector of Timbuktu, which had been smashed during an Islamist purge in which priceless manuscripts, mausoleums of saints and historic mosques were destroyed.

“My uncle put me through school, he sent me to university,” he said. “But these people who took over so much of our country hate learning, culture. I used to sit with my friends, other students, and plan to go abroad if they kept coming south. There would have been no place for us.”

I ran into Amadou from time to time as we made our journey across Mali from south to north in the footsteps of the French campaign, as territory which had fallen in the march of jihad began to be retaken with remarkable speed. Looking at the charred remains of the Islamists’ gun-mounted trucks hit by attack helicopters outside Diabaly, the first town to change hands, Amadou said he felt for the first time that the enemy can be driven out of the country.

Along with the gains came grim signs of vicious abuse and violent retribution: the family of Shekan Kandaku, shot dead by Islamists, burying him in their back yard in Diabaly because the gravediggers had fled and the cemetery shut down; a man in his seventies plaintively asked officials whether one of the Tuareg bodies shot by Malian soldiers and stuffed down a well could be that of his son; a man taking his mother to hospital whipped by the jihadists for travelling in the same car as a woman; the look of terror on the face of 17-year-old Jalu as he was led off by Malian forces protesting his innocence, and whispering “help me”.

“This will go on now, the only way to stop this would be to make a totally new start when the Salafists are thrown out,” said Amadou. “But this would be very difficult. I do not know if people would be able to forgive, I don’t know if my aunt can or I can do that, people will have memories.”

Moussa Manta is one of those haunted by his memory. Shekan Kandaku had hammered at his door in Diabaly, desperate to find safety. “He was one of my closest friends, but I did not know it was him at the door. There was shooting and shouting and I was scared. I did not open the door; he was my friend and I did not open the door. That is what the Islamists did to us, they made us feel fear all the time.”

The fear has also led to ethnic hatred. The current round of strife started when Tuareg separatists, boosted by looted arms from the arsenal of Muammar Gaddafi, declared an independent homeland in the north. Al-Qai’da in Islamic Maghreb joined the rebellion, taking over the leadership and much of the heavy weaponry.

The Tuaregs are now viewed as the authors of Mali’s misfortune. I found a group of them seeking sanctuary among the Dogons, a tribal people who had trekked to the wilderness a thousand years ago rather than give up their ancient gods for Islam. Now they were being preyed on once again by militant Islam. At one of their villages set in a landscape of escarpments and valleys, 56-year-old Okatabula, a teacher in peacetime, was carefully wrapping up sacred totems of this people, effigies of crocodiles and snakes, in oilcloth in case they need to be hidden away. “We are lucky we live in such a remote place, difficult to find unless you know the tracks. We have faced such danger before and we have survived.”

The Tuaregs in Timbuktu had no such chance to hide away. They have fled the city, and along with them have gone the Arabs who were accused of being collaborators with the Islamists. Amadou recalled an Arab trader who lived with his family near his uncle’s home. “They have run away, we found guns in many of the houses of the Arabs,” said a neighbour, Mohammad Dialla. Were there any guns in this particular house? “They probably took them with him,” shrugged the neighbour.

Amadou went to the last of the prisons, another shut-down bank. All the doors were locked beyond the foyer. At a tea shop nearby they recalled a man whose description fitted Saif Moussa being taken out 10 days ago with a bloodied head. Despite this worrying news, Amadou still clung to hope.

“There has been no one who looks like my uncle who has been executed in Timbuktu,” he said. “I still think I shall find him, I think I shall take good news to my aunt.”