Marketplace in the town of Banikane. All photos courtesy of our Observer.
In the weeks since Islamist forces seized control of northern Mali’s main cities – Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal – several of the region’s more isolated villages have sunk into abject poverty. Our Observer travelled across the north’s Timbuktu region, where many live in towns lacking basic necessities like food and medical care.
Largely desert, Timbuktu is an administrative region that is subdivided into five “cercles” or spheres. Each sphere contains a number of small villages and towns, amounting to 51 in total. The capital of the region, Timbuktu (also known as “the city of 333 saints”), first fell under the control of Islamists and the Tuareg-led separatist group MNLA on April 1.
After three months of an uneasy power-sharing arrangement, Islamist forces expelled their former MNLA allies from the north’s major cities, including Timbuktu, at the end of June. Since then, the Timbuktu region has been run by armed groups, although the majority of soldiers have taken up residency in the capital.
In the wake of the takeover, Malian administrative and governmental buildings were left entirely deserted in several towns, while many villagers chose to flee. Mogazou Ibrahim, the mayor of Banikane, a small town 120 kilometres east of Timbuktu, told FRANCE 24 that his community is now forced to survive off of aid provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) because they have been “abandoned by the Malian state”.
With no running water in Banikane, residents are forced to use the village's public well.
“One must travel 80km by donkey just to buy a packet of aspirin”
Sery Moussa Coulibaly is a beekeeper in Bamako. He is originally from the Timbuktu region, which he visited at the end of July.
I had already been to Banikane in the past because part of my family originally comes from there. Before, like in many of the nearby villages, there was a clinic and a pharmacy. But because of everything that’s happened recently, all the doctors and chemists have left the region. Now villagers are forced to travel around 80km by donkey to get to Niafunké in order to receive medical attention at the hospital or even buy a packet of aspirin.Banikane's hospital was left deserted after its staff left the area between the months of March and April.The town’s teachers have also left. The school at Banikane is now deserted and many of the children now find themselves wandering around with nothing to do. Some parents have decided to send their kids to the madrasahs (a religious educational institution where Islam is studied). One such school is based out of the local mosque, but the others are mobile, meaning that the professors travel from village to village to teach children Arabic as well as how to recite hadiths and suras, which is better than nothing. If the Islamists decided to come and see what happens outside of the big cities, these teachings could, consequently, be radicalised.An abandonned schoolroom in Banikane.That’s the problem in these villages – first they were abandoned by the state, and now the Islamists ignore them too. The Islamists are more focused on strategic points like Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. The media has covered almost everything that has happened in these cities, whereas little has been said about what’s going on in smaller towns and villages. It’s not that people want Islamists to come to their towns, but what I have noticed, or at least what appears to be the case in Timbuktu where I ended my trip, is that life is getting back on track. For example, residents there have access to medication, which is distributed by the Islamists themselves.Because the village's teachers left the school, children in Banikane now learn from the Koran.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Peggy Bruguière.