It’s been one year since I last saw these four friends. An unusually long year. 366 days. But that’s not true. They’re always here.

When I look over my shoulder I see Steve. With his warm smile and his South African accent he says: “Hey Pixie.” And when the moment is beautiful he is in awe right next to me: “Like angels playing on your heartstrings.”

When I close my eyes I feel Johan’s hair. How it’s so soft at the back of his head. He’s smiling. Quietly.

When I walk the streets I see Sjark sitting in a garden chair next to his jeep. Next to his wife. Making any place home.

When the wind blows it carries an aria. We stayed on a riverbank at the Niger. Everyone is setting up their mosquito nets for the night. And all of a sudden Martin plays an aria on his iTouch on full volume. Five minutes of perfect beauty. Like angels playing on your heartstrings.

Martin was a proud man. OK, maybe you wouldn’t call us friends. We argued before we went on the boat that took us to Timbuktu. He was a proud man. I see him standing there. Refusing to get in the car like he had refused to shop with me only three days before. Maybe he’s scared, scared to die. He’s 59 and getting up early every morning to take a dozen pills. So he proudly refuses to get in the car. So they shoot him.

One year ago I had just seen a magic city. I know Timbuktu is no longer as it was a year ago. The extremists have destroyed so much. But what I saw was so majestic, so peaceful. Like angels playing on your heartstrings. After the tour we were enjoying lunch. We had been waiting for almost two hours. While we were waiting some bandits killed Martin. And they took Steve. They took Johan. They took Sjark. They sold the three of them to the extremists.

The night before I was having tea with the guard at the auberge. Death. Life. Love. The traditional Tuareg tea ceremony. When our friends arrived they hesitated. That was not the place they had asked the guide to take them to. I was happy to see them. I bid them to come in. I said: “Stay with us. You know where we are it’s always good. It’s safe.” They stayed. Less than 24 hours later the unimaginable had happened.

I’m not saying it should have been me. It shouldn’t have been any of us.

We spent the following night on the roof of the local police station. We were flown back to Mopti. We left Mali. And my friends were always there. At some point along the road I realized: if they are where I am I owe them to use the gift I was given. Freedom. The freedom to go where I want to go. The freedom to make the most of every day. The freedom to be happy.

Martin was buried in Germany. From all we know Steve, Johan and Sjark are still somewhere in captivity. I’m back home. Living with them.

Do you have anything to add? Any thoughts on what you just read? Let me know!

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