It always took me ages to hit the road to the Kangaba camp. Leaving downtown Bamako can be tricky, especially if your place is baco fé — on the far bank of the Niger River — as they say in Bambara, the local language. The traffic is a nightmare. On weekends, dozens of old yellow Mercedes cabs ride alongside bouncing 4x4s, overloaded buses and a swarm of Chinese motorbikes battling to make their way to the main asphalt roads heading out of town. Adding to the usual intense traffic, wealthy locals and foreigners try to escape from the busy, overheated capital of Mali, too.
Exactly a week ago, Le Campement Kangaba — its French name — was attacked by an Al Qaeda affiliate, taking at least five lives: a French-Malian, a French-Gabonese, a Chinese, a Portuguese and a Malian soldier, the Mali government reported. Two of the dead were working for the European Union. Malian security forces, backed by French counterterrorist troops and United Nations peacekeepers, rescued around 60 hostages, including 13 French citizens and several children.
Kangaba was one of those havens where I would always find quiet, a refreshing shadow under the majestic mango trees that Hervé Depardieu, the founder of Le Campement, planted years ago. On Saturday afternoons, we would play soccer on one of the rare grass soccer fields in Mali, teaming up with British, Irish, Brazilian, Italian and Spanish friends, as well as our Malian brothers. The camp was far from the noisy traffic and polluted capital, far from work schedules and everyday worries. We would forget Islamist militants and their repeated threats toward the “crusaders” and the so-called “nonbelievers” we supposedly represented.
Nestled in Dougourakoro’s rocky hills and Hervé’s tree plantation, in the middle of this benevolent environment, I would feel safe. Not being part of Bamako, Le Campement felt as if safety issues weren’t the same as in the city, where I lived from 2012 to 2106 as a freelance journalist, working for French and American media outlets such as Reuters, Europe 1, Médi1 and France 24.
“Avoid public places, restaurants, nightclubs; restrict your movements to the minimum,” read the text messages regularly sent by the French consulate to their nationals in Mali. Having covered two deadly attacks in the capital for foreign media in 2015, I knew how hard it was for Mali’s underequipped intel services to prevent the creation of sleeping cells and attacks by militants in Bamako. La Terrasse restaurant, March 8: five people killed. Radisson Blu hotel, November 20: 22 people killed.
One by one, hotels and restaurants raised fences and barbed wire. Private security companies went on a hiring frenzy.
To me and many other foreigners, life had to go on. But we had to change how we behaved. Without surrendering to terror, we had to adapt to a new threat. War on terrorism was not only taking place in the northern regions of Mali — Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao — where Al Qaeda offshoots are still ruling today after being driven out in 2013. The war had also landed at our doorstep. Yet many of the victims in the terrorist attacks in Bamako were Malians, not foreigners.
Going to Le Campement would be pretty safe, I always thought, as it was not one of those expensive international hotels and fancy restaurants in downtown Bamako. As time went on, Le Campement became famous for its cascading swimming pools, built into the hillside, and its little huts, all furnished with wooden handmade sofas and tables, counters and deckchairs. Hervé and his talented carpenters spent a lot of energy improving the infrastructure and comfort of the huts. We would go to celebrate a birthday party on the top terrace of the hill, gazing at sunsets among the stunning African hills and valleys. I enjoyed many cool, relaxing evenings under the softened fairy lights of the restaurant with my wife, Oumou.
Since Mali lost all its tourists after the Tuareg rebellion and the subsequent jihadist incursion in 2013, new types of clients started to retreat to the wooden huts of Kangaba during their days off. There were European Union civil servants, like Malado, who was killed last week. There were UN blue helmets on R&R, coming from the peacekeeping bases in the north. There were soldiers from France’s counterterrorism force, Operation Serval, now renamed Barkhane. There were diplomats. Everyone had heard of Le Campement.
It got so popular that I began avoiding the place on weekends, where entire delegations would arrive: foreigners and Malian businesses using the newly built conference room for company retreats. I would go on weekdays when I could. Hervé had hired more guards, he told me. They were staying in the mountains with walkie-talkies, to ring the alarm, if not prevent a heavy armed attack.
Hervé raged against France’s foreign ministry country files and travel warnings. Our beautiful Mali, this country in which we had been living in for years, was not that dangerous. The red and orange warning colors on the French foreign ministry’s website map are scaring people, Hervé would say. Only a handful, if any, of our relatives would come to visit us in Mali after looking at the map.
Still, Le Campement remained one of the only places where I would go serenely. It looked so far from the obvious targets back in town. I drove my mum there for a lunch and an afternoon by the pool that was targeted by the attackers last Sunday. I brought a couple of friends who visited my wife and me last October, “because there it was O.K.”
I thought it was one of the last safe havens in Bamako. It was not. Yet, life will go on at Le Campement. Of this I am certain: there is no other way.