‘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.”

 

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
Fraud contributes 11p to a £2.00 box of half a dozen eggs
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the Jurassic World trailer
film

Video: The official full-length trailer for the Jurassic Park sequel has dropped – two days early

Environment
The plant ‘Nepenthes zygon’ was donated to Kew in 2004
environment
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer snapped celebrities for 40 years - but it wasn’t all fun and games
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital