It is not the first thing you will learn about me when we meet. It is not the first thing you will learn when I talk about travelling Africa. It is not even the first thing I will mention when you ask me about whether I was scared as a white woman travelling the continent by myself. Chances are you will not hear from me anything at all about what happened in the early afternoon hours of 25 November 2011 in Timbuktu, Mali. Once a year, however, I feel it is important to remember not only in private – as I do all the other days of the year – but to ask you to remember with me three remarkable men.
I was waiting for lunch in a private dining room in the center of town. Bored. Flipping through some photography books on the coffee table. Small talking with the other members of my group. While a few hundred meters away as the crow flies, in an auberge at the edge of town five friends were scared for their life. They heard shots. They were threatened with guns. They were dragged out of the shower. They hid under a table. Three of them were shoved onto the back of a truck. Martin refused to climb in.
He died. I was dozing off on the settee.
I do not often talk about this afternoon because it is not representative of the Africa I got to know. More importantly this afternoon did not cause me harm. I was happily munching cucumber salad when the police came to take us back to the auberge to grab our belongings.
Life has been kind to me ever since. I kept on traveling across the continent for another eight months and a half. I met other travelers, who made me smile, laugh, think, who became friends. I returned to my home town, got set up in an apartment with a stunning view of Berlin. I found a challenging new job. I made new friends. I quit my job, my apartment and I set out again. I walked across Europe and was warmly welcomed by so many people that much to my dismay I begin to forget their names and faces. On this 25 November 2014 I continue to roam France. I continue to be greeted with generosity and hospitality.
If anything this afternoon three years ago has given me a sense of perspective.
In unhappy moments I catch a glimpse of Steve’s smile, the sensation of Johan’s hair, and I hold on to it until I understand that my reason for despair or anger will eventually pass. It will last a few minutes, hours, occasionally days. Never three years and more. So why dwell in unhappy moments at all?
In happy moments I am reminded to cherish these moments as I don’t know what the next will bring.
In my head I go through different scenarios of what I could do to give these three men their freedom back. I google “mali timbuktu kidnappings” at least once a month. Most months in vain of getting any news. For the most part Steve’s and Johan’s and Sjaak’s families and their governments have chosen to keep news out of the media. I have not been close enough to any of them to request news from the families. There is the occasional video posted online, the last one published only a week ago, showing Sjaak as he pleads for the Dutch government not to get involved in Iraq.
Instead I read about Mali, the Maghreb and the rise of Muslim extremism. The conflict between the government in the South of Mali and the Tuareg in the North eventually led to the 2012 coups which left Muslim extremists in control of much of the North. They were reigning with terror over non-Muslims and Muslims alike, imposing sharia law. Steve, Johan and Sjaak had possibly been held in Timbuktu for months after the kidnapping. When the French army was brought in to support the Malian army I was torn between wishing they would use all their advanced warfare to go and save my friends and wishing they wouldn’t so as to not risk their lives. And then, beyond the other side of Africa, in Iraq and Syria, an even more barbarous group emerged. With horror do I read the reports about ruthless kidnappings, beheadings, rapes in the name of their god. What will happen if IS establishes itself in Mali? What will happen to Steve, Johan and Sjaak?
I don’t know. It is scary. But delving in that fear will not bring my friends home.
What I can do is remember them as the curious, open-minded and friendly people I had the fortune of travelling with, and expect that a solution will be found in the near future, so Steve, Johan and Sjaak return to life their lives in whatever way they choose.