Timbuktu’s fall, as told by our Observers in Mali

 After the cities of Kidal and Goa, it was Timbuktu’s turn to fall into the hands of the Tuareg rebellion on Sunday. Three residents describe the city’s fall, and share their hopes and fears about what will happen now.


MNLA fighters. Undated photos posted on the MNLA website.

After the cities of Kidal and Gao, it was Timbuktu’s turn to fall into the hands of Tuareg rebels on Sunday. Three residents describe the city’s fall, sharing their hopes and fears about what will happen next.

Separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and other armed groups moved in on the central city of Timbuktu, home to about 50,000 people, on Sunday. They hoisted their flag to replace that of the "Malian coloniser". The MNLA, an armed group made up of nomadic Tuaregs, is fighting for the independence of the Azawad region, a vast area spanning hundreds of kilometres from the country’s south to its northeast.

'There wasn’t any real battle"

Baba, a student who left Timbuktu to head to Bamako Sunday night, said:

There wasn’t any real battle on Sunday for the simple reason that most soldiers from the Malian army had already left their military camps, taking all their belongings with them. They had started leaving Friday night. Those few that were left Sunday dressed in civilian clothing to avoid having to fight.

According to Baba, the MNLA “negotiated” the Timbuktu’s capture before it crossed the city’s limits. Amadou, a Tuareg math teacher who lives in Timbuktu, also believes this: 

For some time now, the city had been protected by a group called the "Arab militia", which was backed by Mali’s government. Its fighters deployed throughout the city when the regular army started leaving town on Friday. On Sunday, the militia ended up making a deal with the Tuareg fighters, and gave them free rein of Timbuktu. We heard gunshots in the streets, but these did not come from fighting. They were shot in celebration. The militia followed Tuareg fighters into the abandoned military camps. Once inside, everybody started looting what remained. People were distributing weapons. I even saw children walking in the street with guns, some of them shooting in the air. It was terrifying. 

'We're waiting to see what the rebels' leaders tell us'

On Monday, all stores in Timbuktu were closed. According to our Observers who live there, most residents have shut themselves up in their homes. A hotel owner told us:

We’re waiting to see what the rebels' leaders tell us. Personally, I’m willing to live with them if they can bring us peace and help develop the region, which has been abandoned by the country’s authorities for too long.

Amadou agrees:

It’s vital for the three zones that make up the Azawad region (Kidal, Timbuktu, and Gao) to gain greater autonomy so they can move forward. Nevertheless, we are all Malians, and I don’t think we should divide the country in half. What we need is a sort of federation that would allow us to develop our region without having to wait for the Malian authorities to do things for us.

''Who knows if they'll keep moving further south'

Baba, meanwhile, says he always got along just fine with Timbuktu’s Tuareg population:

They’re our friends. But those who took over the city, we don’t know them, and we don’t know what they want. Who knows if they’ll keep moving further, to the south, and take over more cities.

For security reasons, all Observers' names have been changed.