Timbuktu: Surviving After All

Pete Muller/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Residents outside a restaurant in Niono in central Mali, near the front line of fighting between Islamists and French and Malian forces, January 2013

Secluded amid a sea of sand dunes at the edge of the Sahara, the Maison de Qaddafi, or Qaddafi’s Palace, was once considered the most desirable piece of real estate in Timbuktu, the ancient town in the northwest of Mali, one of Africa’s largest and poorest countries. Constructed by the Libyan dictator between 2006 and 2007 as an African outpost, it is a low-slung, Moorish-style villa of beige concrete, with oblong windows and turquoise ornamental trim, surrounded by a garden of pine and palm trees. Qaddafi decided to build his palace on the exact spot where Jacques Chirac had been feted by traditional chiefs in a Bedouin tent during his 2003 West African tour. “We still call it ‘Chirac’s Dune,’” my Tuareg acquaintance, Azima Ag Ali Mohammed, told me, leading me down a sandy track to the front gate. “Qaddafi was jealous of Western leaders, and he wanted to prove that he was their equal.”

After Libyan rebels captured and executed Qaddafi in October 2011, the villa fell into disrepair. Seven months later, Tuareg guerrillas and jihadists, some from Libya, swept into Timbuktu. In April 2012, Abdulhamid Abu Zeid, leader of the Mali-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, took possession of the villa. The al-Qaeda commander strung black flags from the windows and moved in with two terrified French hostages, whom he had seized in Niger two years earlier.

Abu Zeid didn’t stay for long, however. French warplanes dropped rockets on the villa last January, sending Abu Zeid, his prisoners, and fellow jihadists fleeing into the desert, and putting an end to al-Qaeda’s ten-month occupation of Timbuktu. (The hostages are still being held.) Azima and I squeezed through a gap in the gate and walked unhindered through the front entrance. “This is where the jihadists held their meetings,” he said, leading me into a large salon divided up by concrete columns. Shards of glass, marble tile fragments, and chunks of concrete littered the floor. Broken roof slabs blocked the view of the garden. The entire rear wing of the villa had collapsed after taking a direct hit by a missile. As I walked gingerly around the house—skirting the charred remains of a Nissan sedan, bullet casings, and rubber hoses from Qaddafi’s irrigation system—I heard a rustling. I looked up, startled, to see a white-robed herdsman leading six donkeys up and over the huge pile of rubble. “Salaam aleikum,” he said, with a deferential nod of his head, then continued on his way.

Eight miles above the northernmost bend of the Niger River, at the edge of the Sahara Desert, the somnolent and decrepit town of Timbuktu has long held a mystical appeal for outsiders. Few were more entranced than…

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