The hero of Timbuktu

February 15, 2013

Timbuktu, Mali

By Benoit Tessier

In order to get to Timbuktu I chose the most arduous route, 800 kms (500 miles) of tracks in the desert, because it was the only way possible. Along the road I saw more French flags than during the Football World Cup in 1998. Two days later François Hollande was arriving in town.

The local VIPs, from the wealthiest families of Timbuktu, waited along with other figures of the city (or at least the last remaining few) for the arrival of the French president in front of the big mosque. Since April and the fall of Timbuktu into the hands of the MLNA rebels and Islamist groups, the town suffered and emptied itself over the past 10 months.

The memories of the “punishments” (lashes) that the Islamists inflicted on couples accused of committing adultery or on smokers had now faded. In front of the Sankoré mosque, thousands of people were here to say thank you to France and its hero of the day: François Hollande who enjoyed a walkabout on the esplanade. The crowd was jubilant and screaming “Mali France! Mali France! Long life daddy Hollande.”

A few hostesses wore shirts reading “thank you France”. Elderly local VIPs wrapped themselves in the French flag.

Timbuktu, 900kms (560 miles) north east from Bamako, was placed under high surveillance. The French army was deployed en mass to control all accesses to the area. Hollande did a quick check of the damage inflicted on the UNESCO world heritage town.

He stopped at the Djingareyber mosque, where both mausoleums were destroyed, as well as the Ahmed Baba Institute, an entirely pilfered library which contained very old and precious texts dating back to the middle ages or even to before the Islamic age.

After his tour of the town, Hollande addressed the French troops (and the 193 accredited journalists) at the Timbuktu airport.

Two days later I took the road to the East, towards Douentza then Mopti and then Bamako. I hoped for a few long days to catch a flight to Gao with the French army but I ended up witnessing some heavy fighting at the Regiment of paratroop commandos (RCP) of Djicoroni.

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