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Mali, The Coup, and Timbuktu

On the morning of March 21st, we woke up to the horrifying news that senior officers in the Malian army seized power in a coup. This morning we woke up to even more sad news: Timbuktu fell to Tuareg rebels in the north.

The coup was shocking because for the past 20 years Mali has been held up as the shining beacon of democracy in West Africa. And the country was only a month away from a presidential election where sitting President Amadou Toumani Toure (often called ATT) had announced he would not seek another term.

The coup’s leader, Capt. Amadou Haya Sonogo, has said the coup was and is necessary to staunch the ever-growing Tuareg rebellion, which had grown stronger in recent months thanks to Tuareg fighters returning from fighting in Libya. There, many had served as mercenaries for Qaddafi and after he fell, they marched back to Mali with all of Libya’s advanced weaponry.

This confluence of international events has already wreaked havoc on Mali with the kidnappings in Timbuktu and Hombori we wrote about earlier. The Tuareg rebels consist of Tuaregs, a historically nomadic ethnic group in northern Mali and in much of the Sahara, who generally were left out from having their own state during in post-colonial Africa. The rebellion seems to be led by both the secular National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, and the secular Ansar Dine, the Tuareg Islamist faction.

Tuareg rebels are now taking advantage of the chaos of the coup in Bamako and have been steadily gaining ground in the north. Last week they took important northern cities of Gao and Kidal. And over the weekend they took Timbuktu.

This is an increasingly confusing and stupefying series of events as the coup is almost certainly setting Mali back a decade or two in terms of development. (Last week there were reports of soldiers taking part in the coup pillaging a brand new administrative city in Bamako, looting cash and office supplies.)

We can take comfort in knowing that our friend Moussa, who appears in To Timbuktu, has told us several times since the coup that he and everyone in our old neighborhood has been safe. We have heard the same from our friends in Kati, where we taught at the school. As for our friends in Timbuktu, from this morning’s AP article in the NY Times telling of the capture of Timbuktu, we know that rebels have been going from house to house telling residents to stay calm.

We also know from an Al Jazeera post this morning, that Tuareg rebels are saying that they are now willing to negotiate. Essentially, that they only want traditional Tuareg lands, what they refer to as Azawad, and Timbuktu is the furthest point south for that. This Al Jazeera post has a video embedded which is the most thorough explanation of all of this so far.

On a less promising note, another AP article posted this morning says
“In Kidal and Gao, the Islamist faction took the lead early on, and shopkeepers reported that the rebels went from business to business telling merchants to take down pictures deemed un-Islamic. A hairdresser said he was made to take down the photographs he had put up showing different hairstyles because the images showed uncovered women.”

So a lot is going on and most of it is pretty scary and confusing. BBC News released a helpful who’s who of the crisis today, which helps clarify some things. And considering how this is an ever-changing story that pops in and out of major news conduits irregularly, we find searching for “Mali” in Google News is often the best way to know what is happening.

Again, we hope everyone in Mali stays safe. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have questions or more information.