The conflict that broke out in Northern Mali in January 2012 delayed yet again a long awaited return to the place where I had undertaken fieldwork, and long before that, spent one whole year of my adolescence. While my parents worked for a Norwegian NGO, I lived for one year in the then drought-stricken town of Gossi making friends that were now eagerly awaiting my return. More than one year after the French intervention drove the Islamists back to the fringes of Northern Mali, it was finally considered safe for me to set out towards Gossi. That is, my best friend initially very much wanted me to come, but was soon discouraged by his father and younger brother, who no longer lived in Northern Mali, but in the capital Bamako. The younger brother, a captain in the National Guard, frequently went to North Africa on training missions, and during the conflict was sent there by the military authorities to keep him out of harm’s way when he, as a Malian Arab, risked being conflated with the rebels, who were predominantly Tuareg. In fact, his entire family, whether in Northern or Southern Mali, fled to Burkina Faso during the conflict. Visibly shaken by his own experiences and by what had befallen others, the father urged me not to go lest I be abducted. These days, he said, conflicts between different communities had created so much bad blood that people might designate a person connected to a rival group as a potential kidnap victim only for the sake of inflicting harm upon them.
After careful consideration, I set out for Northern Mali nonetheless. The plan was to spend only one week at a time in Gossi. My head buzzing with warnings, I created a veritable smoke-screen in Sévaré, a centrally placed city in Mali, with easy access to Northern Mali. Whenever I was asked about my destination, I listed a new Northern Malian town, until I had to decide the time for my departure. Only when buying my ticket did I mention Gossi. Late at night, the bus arrived from Bamako and alighted in Sévaré to let passengers for Northern Mali get on board. Some time after my backpack had been securely fastened to the roof, we were allowed to enter the bus, with no control of tickets, and no available seats. The amount of passengers and luggage left me no other recourse than to stand on a sack of rice (or millet) and grasping the overhead shelf until my left thumb grew blisters. For we travelled for five hours on a war-damaged, pot-holed road, which was only lit by the headlights of the bus. But if the darkness did not deter the driver, the military check-point at Douentza did. The furthermost position of the rebels and the Islamists before their drive southwards, Douentza now seemed to constitute the gateway to Northern Mali where everyone passing in had to present their papers. But such matters had to wait for daylight. Meanwhile, everyone were urged to descend from the bus, and soon, the prepared ones rolled out mats and made ready to go to sleep in or next to the paved road. As I sat next to the road and watched the starlight over distant mountains, another passenger recognised me. A childhood acquaintance, he was now returning from a course for health-workers in Bamako. We chatted away about old and recent times until we drifted off to sleep, me on a towel and with my backpack under my head. In the morning, there was a rush to get on our feet, but not being allowed to board the bus, we had to walk aside it past waiting lorries, until the military checkpoint. Here we all presented our papers one by one, and were then let back into the bus. Standing again for several more hours of slow progress on yet more damaged stretches of road, I felt a sense of desperation creep up on me. But a Tuareg soldier descending in Hombori, the last town before Gossi, kindly offered me his seat as he left the bus.
Although I was now more relaxed, the semi-desert landscape added to an eerie sense of entering into a realm of a different kind. The knowledge of what had gone down strengthened my feeling that this once familiar, if bleak and forbidding, landscape had changed alongside those events. In the comfort of a seat, I arrived soon enough in Gossi, however. My friend came to meet me at the assemblage of houses alongside the road. The local soldier on post got upset with him as he did not immediately bring me to the local military post. Waiting for the soldier to be seated, I stood first in line of the passengers having alighted in Gossi, and despite his brusque tone, my papers were checked to his satisfaction, and he was content with the details furnished about my stay. I could not help wondering about the several rifles, some automatic, most of them carbines, piled in the corner of this small house of only one room with no door and no one permanently guarding it. The soldier on post may be anywhere in the area, and this in spite of earlier suicide bombers on motorbike, who only ever killed themselves.
A couple days later, we went to the local gendarme, and inside his house, sitting on his bed, he took down my details, having seen my passport and research permit. He strongly suggested that I should not spend more than one week. My friend told him that such was the plan, and that we would at any rate call on him again within a week.
Amidst updates on events during the rebellion and the Islamist presence, there were steady reports about banditry in the areas surrounding Gossi. Pretty much everyone told me that as long as I stayed in the town, I was safe, but the bush was best avoided for quite some time to come.
This was the general opinion of both townspeople and the members of the Togolese UN force present in Gossi. The latter had taken over the compound of the NGO that originally brought me to Gossi, our old house serving as sleeping quarters and situation room with computers in our living room and maps on the walls. After inquiring, I was let inside the compound, and a sergeant escorted me around as I told about how we had once lived there. I was allowed in almost everywhere, spoke to the second in command, saw their vehicles and discussed their weaponry. Later, when I crossed other Togolese, they told me to keep a low profile, not remain there for long, and not tell anyone where I was going when I left Gossi.
After rather more than a week, I asked my friend if we should not prepare for my departure. I could always return later, and keep travelling back and forth for the duration of my stay, so people would never quite know my whereabouts. But he now said that it looked as if it were fine. There was no rush for me to leave. We crossed the gendarme in the street occasionally, but my friend only told him that we would let him know my plans in due course. He would always ask if I was still there and for how long, but not insist on my reporting to him let alone leaving. Apparently, according to my friend, his concern had initially been about his responsibility in case something happened to me. I should not bother too much, as my friend claimed to know the gendarme and would always be able to smooth out matters with him.
So I hung around, walking to all corners of the town, the idea crossing my mind that those guys on motorbikes could easily force me to come with them from the piece of bush separating some outlying houses from the rest of the town. They did not, however, and with time I stopped being so jumpy. Venturing down to the main road, I met an old acquaintance, the Coca-Cola vendor. His business was thriving with all the buses passing, but during the Islamists’ occupation, it had been slow. By contrast, despite their own bans, the Islamists had sometimes dropped by to watch the television news, they too being curious about the latest events. Things were calm, now though, and they could pretty much live as they once did. But a waiting traveller told us off for our relieved laughter, impressing upon us that the people in the bush were still suffering from insecurity and banditry. My vendor friend replied that they rejoiced in what they could. Meanwhile, I was reminded that although Gossi and my friends did better than rumours would initially have it, events still had effects that went beyond my personal safety and the fascination of the somewhat but no longer very dangerous place that I was in.
Yet, nobody never really knew. My first brief introduction to the commander of the UN force occurred when I visited the president of an interest group for the Malian Arabs. Waiting with his entourage in the shade of one of his lorries, he eventually let me into his nicely furnished lounge, provided me with the telephone numbers of everyone from the foreign minister to all military delegations in the area, and insisted on the importance of my personal safety. Our conversation was cut short, as there was an attack by bandits on nomads not far from Gossi. The president issued recommendations to the UN commander, almost in the form of orders, and soon after he arrived at the president’s house. I briefly greeted the commander, and then got a clear hint from another Arab to make myself scarce and join the entourage in the shade of the lorry. The sense of urgency was palpable even though I was later told that it was not the UN force that would take action against the bandits. That task belonged to the National Guard. They captured the bandits within a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I could feel as if all of the town was becoming more relaxed. Stories of insecurity gradually became a little more uncommon, attention turning to business and local politics.
Only when on a brief visit back to Sévaré did the insecurity resurface. Discussing the question of Northern Mali with other travellers at the bus station, I got a seemingly exhaustive list of attacks undertaken anywhere between Sévaré and Gossi. My friends in Gossi were surprised when I mentioned some of them, because they had not heard of those episodes and prided themselves upon being up to date with local news.
But with such a flurry of rumour, no one could capture it all. The people just outside the area, like passers-by earlier, insisted on the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile, I had taken to strolling around in Sévaré at night, not something I would have done when heading to Gossi a few weeks earlier.
Back in Gossi, I left the house of a Tuareg chief at nightfall, crossing the lake in a wooden boat at dusk. My host was still clearly watching my steps and planned to fetch me, but never turned up. His motorbike broke down and his phone was out of power. A young Tuareg crossing the lake with me insisted that I ride on the back of his motorbike. He travelled at break-neck speed in the dark and through sand, threatening to topple at any moment. I soon told him that I could find my own my way, descended and continued on foot through the predominantly darkened town. Walking alone past strangers no longer worried me, not even at night. Ironically, a few nights before my departure, a brief ride on a motorbike turned out to be the most dangerous thing I did in Gossi.
Ole Martin Gaasholt is a Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. He has a long experience living in Northern Mali, researching conflict and politics for almost two decades.