Some of my earliest memories are of my father’s bedtime tales. Once he told me how, becoming tired of south London, he had decided to go on an adventure. He went to a local garage, hired a camel and set off down the road to the ancient city of Timbuktu, where he encountered all manner of wonders. At the time, I had no idea where Timbuktu was (I don’t think he did either) but the name struck a magic chord in my mind.
Decades later I found myself on a propeller plane with a bunch of United Nations dignitaries, hurtling towards a runway in the Malian desert. There was a risk we’d be shot at by jihadists, so we had to make a gut-wrenching dive of a landing. As we skidded and jolted onto the runway, I couldn’t help but grin. Here I was – finally – in Timbuktu, following in my father’s fictional footsteps.
Timbuktu, a byword for exotic remoteness, has loomed large in the western imagination for centuries. In medieval times the city was a stopping-off point for trade caravans, carrying gold, slaves, salt and ivory, that crisscrossed the Sahara on their way from the west-African kingdoms to the Mediterranean. It became fabulously wealthy. In the 14th century the Malian King Mansa Musa I – possibly the richest man the world has ever known – travelled through Timbuktu on a pilgrimage to Mecca with an entourage of 60,000 men and enough gold to cause hyperinflation in Mecca, Cairo and Medina.
The city experienced an intellectual golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries. Scholars from across Africa came to Timbuktu and wrote about almost everything imaginable. Tens of thousands of manuscripts were preserved in beautiful universities and mosques were built out of beige mud and timber. Leo Africanus, a north-African traveller, described Timbuktu in glittering terms, helping the fable grow in Europe till the city was more myth than reality: an El Dorado of the sands.
In the 19th century European explorers furiously competed to be the first to make it to Timbuktu. It was a perilous enterprise: travellers had to contend with not only the Sahara’s beating sun and deadly diseases, but also bands of marauding warriors. Alexander Gordon Laing, a Scottish explorer, was attacked by desert raiders who shot and stabbed him. Somehow he survived and a few months later became the first European known to have reached Timbuktu, whose streets turned out not to be paved with gold, after all. On his way back he was attacked again by Tuaregs, who reportedly strangled him to death with a turban.
If Timbuktu’s glory days were long gone by the 19th century, the Timbuktu of 2019 is an even sorrier sight. Decades of neglect by the Malian government and desertification in the surrounding countryside has left it impoverished. Timbuktu used to attract a stream of tourists from Europe and America who’d come to see the magnificent 14th-century Djinguereber Mosque and go for camel tours in the desert. But today, it’s too dangerous for all but the hardiest travellers, thanks to an increasingly complicated conflict that is tearing the country apart.
Seven years ago, ethnic Tuareg separatists and jihadists stormed into Timbuktu and took over much of northern Mali. The militants were armed with powerful weapons from Libya’s civil war and enforced a perverse Wahhabi ideology, banning music and destroying or damaging thousands of manuscripts, artefacts and buildings. Alarmed by the militants’ rapid advance in its former colony, France intervened and was soon joined by other international troops. By 2013 the militants had been driven out of the major urban areas and back into the desert.
But the conflict is far from over. What started as a fight between jihadists and the Malian state has become a struggle between a dizzying array of armed groups. Criminal gangs, ethnic militias and groups affiliated to Islamic State and Al Qaeda, are flitting across the region’s porous borders and wreaking havoc. The violence has claimed over 5,000 lives in the Sahel, the belt of land that runs along the southern edge of the Sahara desert, in the last five months alone. Since Timbuktu was liberated, there have been scores of attacks and kidnappings.
As we landed, troops set up a perimeter around the landing strip. Much of Timbuktu’s airport is now a bombed-out ruin. Just beyond the airport, we could see the watchtowers and reams of barbed wire of the huge international peacekeeping base. There are around 15,000 UN peacekeepers stationed across Mali. But they are spread thinly in a country twice the size of Great Britain and they are struggling to keep the peace.
We were briefed on what to do if there was a bombing or if our convoy was shot at. Everyone put on a jovial smile, but I could feel the unease in the air. The Malian conflict has claimed the lives of almost 200 blue helmets, making it the most dangerous UN peacekeeping mission in the world.
Our ragtag group of UN employees and journalists already had a huge UN security detail, but the local governor had heard about our trip, and not wanting to be outdone, had sent a dozen trucks packed to the rafters with Malian soldiers.
So began our whirlwind tour. We struck a ludicrous site – a convoy of around thirty armoured cars tearing through the dusty streets to different meetings. At one point I caught a quick glimpse of one of the famous mosques, but there was no time for site-seeing.
The signs of war, poverty and decline were everywhere. We drove past old signs for tourists and eco-hotels that were riddled with bullet holes. Many of the houses were dilapidated and, save for the occasional 4x4, there were few cars on the roads, just barefoot children playing in the sand.
There are few ways for locals to make money, so many young men have left, turned to banditry, jihadism or started to smuggle people or drugs across the desert. At one of our stops, I managed to grab a few words with a former tour guide, Ibrahim Ag Hami. Before the conflict, he used to take Europeans on camel tours. Now he scrapes a living together in whatever way he can. He told me that men with guns often came into town to steal supplies and money. “They take anything they want,” he said. “There is nothing for us here.”
Towards the end of our tour we stopped at a small shop selling crafts in the centre of town that was receiving international funding in an attempt to boost the local economy. Dozens of soldiers jumped out of the cars and blocked off the roads with mounted machine guns. Snipers climbed onto the rooftops to look out for approaching vehicles. A group of women sang a traditional song to welcome us before showing us their leather wares and silver bangles. But I could see some of them were visibly disturbed by the huge armed convoy. The situation felt desperate to me. If we needed this amount of security to visit them for ten minutes, what hope did their little enterprise really have?
We were hustled back onto our plane to be flown back to Bamako, the capital of Mali. As the plane set off on its steep climb, I looked back at Timbuktu with a feeling of sadness. I thought of my father and his camel and I realised that somehow, all these years later, I’d still been hoping for the myth.