For a moment the lieutenant searched for words. The French column was rolling through the town of Tonka, three weeks ago in northern Mali, on the heels of retreating Islamists. It was not long after sunrise and already there were crowds along the road, cheering and waving French and Malian flags.
“It’s like the liberation of Paris,” the lieutenant said quietly. He was riding shotgun in my car. From the back seat came the voice in French of Issaka Nazoum, my fixer, quoting De Gaulle in August 1944: “…Paris shattered, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated!”
Issaka – he usually goes by his nickname, Zim – grew up in Timbuktu. Last year Islamists seized the north and Zim fled with his family to Bamako, where I met him in November. When French troops rushed to Mali last month to stop an Islamist advance, I asked Zim if he could join me for a few days of reporting.
“Not to the front, of course,” I said, and meant it. But events would carry us there anyway.
The drive to reclaim northern Mali has offered the country a chance to rebuild itself – work that is only beginning, and may not succeed. Presidential elections must be held, administration must be rebuilt, and security maintained. Islamists militants are apparently trying for a comeback – the city of Gao has been attacked this month by two (unsuccessful) suicide bombers and a group of militants who slipped across the Niger River in boats.
Meanwhile, Malians must avoid reprisals. Malian Army soldiers are accused of executing at least 13 prisoners last month, according to a Feb. 1 report by Human Rights Watch. Last week the Army detained eight Arab men in Timbuktu in what looks like a case of ethnic profiling.
For Zim, at least for a brief time, intervention in Mali allowed a homecoming in triumph.
Zim is nearly 40, but looks younger. He has dark skin, smooth features and a rich voice, and a habit of repeating himself when he gets excited. He grew up in a sand-floored house with goats in the yard; education and a fondness for wool suits came later. Today he seems at home in both worlds.
“When I was a child I played soccer, and I was a rassembleur,” or leader, he told me. He had been as sociable then as he is now. “I was at the center of all the other kids my age.”
The family has lived in Timbuktu for as long as anyone can remember. They are Songhai, a sub-Saharan people who once made Mali the foundation of empire. Zim was educated along both Western and Islamic lines, and studied English at university in Bamako.
He worked as teacher, then as an education consultant for the Millennium Villages Project, a development program of the UN Development Programme, Columbia University, and the Millennium Promise NGO. In 2012, the musician Bono, a project donor, came to visit, and Zim showed him around a village.
“He said he wanted to come back the next year and help out,” Zim told me. “He said he would tell Matt Damon to visit, too.”
When crisis struck
The following year brought crisis instead. Islamist militants hijacked an ethnic Tuareg revolt, which prompted a military coup that unseated the president. The north emptied. Zim and his family rented a house in Bamako. He began working as a research assistant for Human Rights Watch.
Last month Zim and I left Bamako in a Toyota Land Cruiser driven by Zim’s friend, Abdoulkarim Issaka. But chance, we met a French military column pushing north.
“We must be prudent,” Zim said. We were stopped at a Malian Army checkpoint. Ahead were a red dirt road and a flat horizon. “Perhaps we should wait a bit.”
We had to stay with the column or lose it. That night we parked inside a V-shape of French Army vehicles. Their guns were aimed outward at the night. In the morning a lieutenant who was ordered to manage us journalists came down the line: “Drive carefully - some explosive devices have been found.”
The column crept forward. At times a curve in the track would reveal hundreds of vehicles, from tanks to jeeps. We all grew more confident. “Oh, they’ll be afraid, they’ll be afraid,” Zim said happily of any Islamists who might prowling around.
'That's my wife's shop!'
On the third evening we neared Timbuktu and our pace quickened. The land was hummocky and grown with acacia trees. The vehicles leapt and slithered to the city’s small airport. There were animal droppings in the rooms, and a bomb was discovered in the control tower.
The next day we entered Timbuktu. The crowds turned out as they had elsewhere. But this time Zim kept pointing out the window and saying things like “Down there is my house!” and “That’s my wife’s shop!” The first thing he did was visit his mother.
Weeks of intervention have helped reveal the extent of Mali's problems. Months, if not years, of work are needed to solve them. Everything from underdevelopment and ethnic grievances to weapons proliferation came together to create the past year's mess.
Tens of thousands of Malians who fled the north last year still can’t go home. Among them are Zim and his family. They will stay in Bamako for now, where he can work and his three children can go to school. Their hope, at least, is renewed. I think of our car racing through the night on the final approach to Timbuktu, and of Zim's response when I asked how he felt:
“Timbuktu shattered, Timbuktu martyred, but Timbuktu liberated!”