On voting day, a cry from Timbuktu: 'We want peace'

The ancient city saw high turnout in the months after war and coup. Some voters not on the list are going back to the desert where they have 'only the wind.'

Joe Penney/Reuters
People queue to vote during Mali's presidential election in Timbuktu, Mali, Sunday, July 28.

The citizens of Timbuktu turned out in high numbers Sunday for the first election since their ancient city was trashed by radical Islamists last year. 

“We want peace,” declared Fadimata Traore as she approached the polling station, her voting card held high in a town whose social as well as physical infrastructure has been damaged. 

Polling stations opened on time, except for a few stations where poll workers were not ready for the mass of voters wanting to cast their votes.

“The surprise, from what I have observed, is the high turnout. It is really quite a number, we believe about 50 percent,” said the president of the election committee in Timbuktu, Ibrahim Sissoko.

Locals waited outside polling areas starting at 6 a.m., chatting as usual on a Sunday morning, though without the usual glass of sweet tea, since the town is two weeks into Ramadan, and many had their last meal of the day before moving into the dusty streets. 

“We want change," said Fatma Zeid, sitting among a group of women gathered on a street corner. “We are tired. Today we will choose a strong leader who can bring peace to the country,” she added. 

The elections was the first since president Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted in a military coup over a year ago, an event that plunged the west African country into chaos.

Seven months later, French forces drove out Islamist radicals who had moved into this town, destroying ancient monuments and setting a prized library on fire.

Today, life in Timbuktu remains difficult. Water and some basic food stuffs are scarce. Electricity is available only between 7 p.m. and midnight.

However the elections allowed citizens to enjoy a day of fresh drinks and music blasting from small shops as authorities opened the power grid for 36 hours.

“I’m happy to be voting today,” said Issa Keita as he waited in line outside voting room no. 1 in Timbuktu’s densely populated Arabadjou neighborhood.

As polling ended at 6 p.m. on Sunday, officials started tallying the results.

Monitors said early indications were higher numbers of voters than expected, and higher than in peacetime.

However not everyone was able to vote. Coming from the small desert village of Teshak, Ahmed Ag Algarbi, an ethnic Tuareg, waited outside the polling station.

“I was told my name is not on the list,” he said.

Others not registered in Timbuktu during the last census in 2012 were told they would have to vote in their home villages, several miles away.

“For two years we have had nothing to eat. We were forced to kill our goats to feed our families. Life in the desert is hard. Before we at least had our animals. Now there is only the wind,” said Ahmed Ag Algarbi before he returned to the desert without casting his vote.

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