When I woke up this morning, I found myself on a mattress on the floor of a dusty hotel. I was exhausted. My back hurt and I was cranky. Then it hit me….I’m in Timbuktu! That realization instantly made all my soreness and exhaustion go away. After seven days, five cities, at least thirty hours in the car, military checkpoints and all sorts of other delays, we had finally made it to our destination.
I am part of International Medical Corps’ emergency assessment team, which left Bamako over a week ago to evaluate the humanitarian situation in northern and central Mali in the immediate aftermath of the French military intervention. We knew the northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal had suffered the most under the Touareg and Islamist rebels that took over the region less than a year ago. We knew we had to get there. The question was how…
Our team tried several different routes, regularly running into eager journalists and disgruntled soldiers along the way. First, we planned to go via Mopti, but we were told that we would not be able to get more than two hours from town before being turned back. Our second attempt took us five hours back to where we came from, the town of Segou, to a road that would have us in Timbuktu after 12-18 hours of driving through the bush. That fell apart after our convoy with journalists from all over the world disintegrated based on rumors of a potential flight (that never materialized). Our third attempt took us back to Mopti.
On our second excursion via Mopti, we thought we could head up through Douentza after our logistics coordinator had secured authority from the Governor of Mopti and a powerful Lieutenant in the Malian army. Our hopes were high and we remained positive, even after nearly a week of roadblocks. On arrival in Douentza, we heard the terrible news that a mine had exploded about 100 kilometers (62 miles) further down the way to Gao, killing several Malian soldiers. We decided to stay put in Douentza for the time being and assess the humanitarian situation there, while our logistics coordinator gathered information on the viability of the road north.
Our work in Douentza was critical, as we were the first agency to conduct a needs assessment there since the town was retaken by French and Malian forces. We were able to meet with the Mayor, visit dozens of households and see first-hand the destruction caused by rebels. But I couldn’t forget that we still hadn’t reached where we wanted to be. After confirming that the security situation along the road to Timbuktu was acceptable, we began the 200 kilometer (125 mile) drive through the desert the next morning. Car packed, extra fuel containers strapped to the roof of our 4X4, we sped off, eager to reach our destination all the while knowing that there would probably be another setback or two along the way. Sure enough, about an hour and a half into the journey, the rear wheels of our 4X4 got stuck in about six inches of sand and our four-wheel-drive wouldn’t engage. After about thirty minutes of shoveling, unloading and pushing, we were off again.
Almost there, closer and closer, we passed signs indicating that we were 15km, 10km, 5km from the Niger River. The only thing that stood between us and Timbuktu was one of the longest rivers in West Africa. And one last problem: the ferry was nowhere in sight. Sure enough, some local residents confirmed that the only working ferry was on the other side of the river and the captain was at the mosque for Friday prayers. This couldn’t be happening, could it? We had about three to four hours of daylight left and there was no turning back now. The good news, though, was that we weren’t alone. Two French and two Italian journalists were stuck with us, one of whom took the heroic step of jumping in a canoe and going to the other side of the river to find the ferry driver and try to convince him to come back for us.
Nearly an hour and a half later, we saw the most beautiful sight inching its way toward us. It was the ferry—only it was being pushed by a small motorized canoe. Eventually, we loaded the trucks onto the ferry and pushed off. It was really happening; all our efforts were paying off. Driving through the streets of Timbuktu felt like a dream, as fatigue and exhaustion started to overcome our team. Arriving at the dusty hotel that had just re-opened the day before as the rebels were fleeing Timbuktu, we realized that we had made it. But as we stretched out that night, filthy and exhausted, it dawned on us that our work was only just beginning. Although it felt like the end of the journey, our assessment was to begin the next morning at 7:30am with clinic visits, household needs assessments and discussions with key community-members. Oh, and there’s always that question looming – how the heck are we going to get back when we’re done?