Mali—Working the Desert Shift


A MINUSMA Peacekeeper

During my time in Timbuktu, I spent a few days in the desert in the north-west of Mali. A Google image search of “life in the Sahara” brings up the romantic: photos of camel trains, undulating sand dunes, oases, nomadic peoples,tourists,tents and traders. Not readily apparent are the police and peacekeepers working to protect the people in this vast empty corner of the world.

Two years ago, armed with weapons left over from the Libyan civil war, nomadic Tuareg tribesmen (from the northern deserts of Mali, Libya, Algeria and Niger) launched an insurrection against the Malian government in search of independence for northern Mali. The Tuareg rebellion was hijacked by radical islamists who began an advance on the Malian capital of Bamako.

In January 2013, France launched a military operation to defeat the islamist rebels and to begin the restoration of Malian government authority. The French operation created space for an African-led peacekeeping operation to be launched which was followed by a UN peacekeeping operation known as MINUSMA. MINUSMA includes many of the troops and police from Ghana, Togo and Nigeria who served in the previous African-led operation.

These are some of the faces of the peacekeepers who live and work in the harsh silent desert where daytime temperatures are in the vicinity of 40C (104F) and the dry heat wicks moisture from the body without even pausing to appear as sweat. During the day, there are no visible signs of life—no birds, no animals. Nothing moves: except for the ubiquitous plastic bag caught on whatever will take it—thorn tree or barbed wire.