A mysterious disappearance sends shudders through Timbuktu

Reporter John Thorne met Ali Ould Mohamed Ould Kalbali weeks before he disappeared, allegedly at the hands of Malian soldiers. Are ethnic reprisals underway?

Issaka Nazoum
John Thorne and Ali Ould Mohamed Ould Kalbali a few weeks before the later was dragged from his home, allegedly by Malian government soldiers.

I can’t imagine why anyone who knew him would want to kill Ali Ould Mohamed Ould Kalbali, a friendly old merchant in Timbuktu and one of the few Arabs who stayed there during the Islamist takeover of northern Mali last year. But that’s what his family fear has happened. 

I met Mr. Ould Kalbali in January in his shop, three days after French and Malian forces recaptured the city. He was feeling chipper, and we talked about his life and his hopes for the future. Two weeks later, back in Tunis, where I live, I got a phone call from one of his sons, Ibrahim.

“Soldiers came and put my father in a car took him away; him and four other Arab men,” Ibrahim said. He sounded lost. “They didn’t give us any explanation.”

Mali’s army and Human Rights Watch have determined that at least five men including Ould Kalbali - four of them Arabs - were detained on Feb. 14 in Timbuktu. Their fate remains a mystery. According to the army, five Malian Army soldiers are under investigation for the disappearances.

That investigation is the first so far into a string of reprisals allegedly carried out by Malian soldiers. For authorities, the case of the Timbuktu disappeared is a test of whether they can push back against an appetite for vengeance in some corners of Malian society. For families of the disappeared, it is simply a tragedy.

Sugar vendor, salt miner

The roots of tragedy go back at least to last year, when Islamist militants hijacked a revolt by ethnic Tuareg to seize Mali’s north. Men were beaten for smoking and women for showing their hair, while alleged thieves had their hands sliced off. The Islamists also appear to have cut through society along ethnic lines.

Most of Timbuktu’s inhabitants still there in January were black. Many described the Islamists who had run the city as largely Tuareg and Arabs who had courted those ethnicities while persecuting other groups. By then, most Tuareg and Arabs had left.

One exception was Ould Kalbali. He was well-known and seemed well-liked, and although life under Islamist rule was hard, he had seen no reason to leave. I found him one morning tending his shop.

He was short and neatly-built, with a trim grey beard and a quick smile. He briskly sold another man a few kilos of sugar, then led me outside. We sat on the ground under a large tree, and I asked about Mali’s Arabs.

“Oh, there are many tribes,” said Ould Kalbali. “Ouled Sliman, Ouled Bouhamdou, Ouled Omran, for example. I’m Ouled Aish.”

The names and the rippling quality of Ould Kalbali’s Arabic dialect told the story of his descent from Arabian nomads called the Maaqil, who entered the deserts of northwest Africa in the Middle Ages and mixed with the local Amazighs, or Berbers.

As a young man, Ould Kalbali spent four years in the Taoudenni salt mine, far to the north. “You had to dig with a pick and shovel, since there were no machines,” he said. “Three or four meters down, and under it is the salt.”

After that, he returned to Timbuktu. He had at least 17 children and step-children. When Islamists took over last year, many Arabs including some of Ould Kalbali’s grown children fled. “I told my children, ‘Don’t leave!’, but they left,” he said, and shook his head with a little laugh at the memory.

'I'm not afraid'

He had tried to keep a low profile. One day an Islamist had come to his door and bullied his housemaid, a Tuareg girl, into covering her hair. But otherwise he had avoided trouble.

“Aren’t you worried that people will blame all Arabs for what the Islamists did?” I said. Days earlier, a mob had broken into shops downtown that supposedly belonged to Arabs.

Ould Kalbali answered without hesitation: “I’m not afraid of the future. My government will come back now, and I’m a citizen.”

Up the hill lived another family of Arab merchants. They didn’t seem to share Ould Kalbali’s confidence. I called at the door and was quickly led into a bare little room with a mattress at one end. Some black neighbors stood just inside the door, apparently as lookouts.

Two Arab brothers, Mohamed and Danna Ould Dahama, were sitting inside with a cousin, Mohamed Ould Baid. They were tall men, all wearing the blue robes common to the deserts of northwest Africa. Was it true, I asked, that the Islamists had favored the Arabs?

“Not all the Arabs were with the Islamists,” said Mohamed Ould Dahama. And of those who supported them, “some went for money, some because they were young, and only some from conviction.”

His brother repeated the point, and a moment later so did Mr. Ould Baid. I asked if they were worried. They said no, but their eyes said yes.

Five men taken

Two weeks later came Ibrahim’s phone call. His father had been bundled off with at least four other men. Human Rights Watch has eyewitness accounts of four Arab men and one non-Arab man being detained, including Ould Kalbali and Mohamed and Danna Ould Dahama, says researcher Corinne Dufka.

Malian gendarmes have opened an investigation into the disappearances that has led to the arrest of five Malian Army soldiers, says Capt. Modibo Traore, an army spokesman. The suspects are currently held in military custody in Bamako pending disciplinary hearings and, potentially, trials most likely by a military court.

The investigation is the only one yet to look into alleged abuses by Malian soldiers since January, says Captain Traore. That makes it a test case, says Mrs. Dufka. While incidents appear to have slowed with the deployment of gendarmes and, more recently, a UN peacekeeping mission, they haven’t ceased.

“We have to hope [the army’s] rhetorical commitment is matched by concrete and meaningful action on the ground,” Dufka says. “There are other cases, important cases, that they need to move forward on as well.”

Meanwhile, there is still no sign of the disappeared. A few weeks ago another son of Ould Kalbali, Mohamed, called me in desperation to ask for news.

“I’m so sorry,” I told him. “I don’t know anything more than you do.”

“Even if we could have his body, it would be something,” he said.

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