I was in Bamako, Mali last February on a day trip to the capital helping to purchase items for our annual Ouelessebougou benefit auction. When we go to Mali, we stay in Ouelessebougou, a province and town about 1.5 hours south of Bamako, where our staff and compound are located.
On this particular day, I was accompanied by a friend named Ousman, a local Malian who was helping me navigate my way through the crowded market streets as we shopped for particular items on our auction list. John and the other men in our group were meeting with the folks at Islamic Relief, making plans to coordinate an effort to import humanitarian supplies later this year.
There seemed to be an extra level of buzz and excitement in the market on that particular day. Not speaking the local language, I wasn’t sure what was going on but I could sense something was happening by the electricity in the air. Then, suddenly Ousman grabbed my hand and started running. “We have to get out of here NOW!” he yelled as I ran behind him, fearful of losing his grip on my hand. I was the only white face in a sea of black wide-eyed Malians running en masse through the streets. After a few blocks, we ducked into the Artisan’s Market near the large Friday Mosque, a walled sanctuary filled with artisans hard at work with wood, leather, silver and African crafts. This market is huge and exciting. Everything seemed peaceful there.
For the next hour or so, I finished the market shopping, then had a cell phone call from John informing me that there was rioting in Bamako near the market and they could not get to where I was, the streets were blocked and inaccessible. He wanted to know if I could get out and get back to Ouelessebougou with Ousman. I told him we’d try. Shortly after that phone call, the market friends I’d been dealing with spoke to Ousman in Bamakan, and told him he needed to get me out of there now. It was no longer safe. They all stood up, surrounded me and then several of these good men escorted us through the teeming market, out into the huge parking lot, and safely to our car.
Ousmann and I then joined the throngs of people running through the streets, watching shops closing and children in school uniforms running and general mayhem everywhere. Traffic crept, but we finally made our way to the edge of town by the Niger River and crossed on one of 3 congested bridges, heading back to our village 1.5 hours away. The farther we drove, the more the traffic thinned, until all felt normal in the bush of Africa. We had no communication or explanation of what was happening in town, we just knew we had to get out of there.
We later learned that there had been trouble up north by Timbuktu and the day before about 170 Malians were killed by rebels who came across the borders. The Malian army boys were unarmed and the rebels massacred them. The President of Mali lived in Bamako and he got on the radio and told the Malians not to make war (basically to do nothing) and everyone was very angry with him. That morning he fled from Bamako and rioting was breaking out in the streets.
Today John and I had lunch with the US Ambassador from Mali, His Excellency Al Maamoun Baba Lamine Keita. He gave a lecture at BYU on “The Crisis in Mali” and the unrest in Mali that began last February. Al Qaeda forces have moved into northern Mali from Lybia and other areas, causing political havoc. The elections this year were stopped and there is currently no President because the country is divided.
In 3 weeks we’ll be there again, this time with a group of eye doctors. I’m excited to go back. We hope to be safe in the southern villages among the people I love. As we move into this coming holiday season, again I am reminded of how important it is to pray for “peace on earth, good will towards men.”