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The UN Base in Timbuktu: A Demanding Deployment in the Sahara


The UN mission in Mali includes a supercamp in Timbuktu, near the airport and the heart of the city. Peacekeepers are constantly required, as in Mali, to be stationed in places that exact a high emotional price. BENOIT BRYCHE

TIMBUKTU — Who wants peace in Mali? If everyone says they want it, why is carrying out the 2015 peace agreement and its cease-fire so difficult? Part of the challenge for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali is not only helping to implement the agreement in the major cities, such as Timbuktu, but also the villages isolated throughout the north in the Sahara — a hard-to-control expanse because of geography and lack of state governance.

Yet the goal of peace defines the purpose of the peacekeeping mission here by trying to reach and influence isolated villages and restoring control by developing the local economies, providing human support and safeguarding borders.

At the same time, here in Timbuktu the UN base is growing more insecure from sporadic deadly attacks by terrorists. All of which proves that to succeed in a peacekeeping operation, there are places where personnel must be stationed at a high emotional price. The security problems in Timbuktu, however, can offer unexpected lessons and provide insights on how UN peacekeepers manage psychologically.

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The UN’s presence in Mali began on July 1, 2013, when the UN Security Council transferred the authority of the International Mission of Support in Mali (Misma) and the UN political office in the country to a new peace operation, called Minusma, for an initial 12-month mandate. As part of the transfer, the UN opened an office in Timbuktu, the ancient crossroads of the Sahel, in June 2013. The first permanent personnel in Timbuktu felt like pioneers.

It was a little more than a year earlier, in April 2012, when the Malian army lost control of Timbuktu to various Tuareg rebel groups, who in turn were overrun by radical Salafist Islamic groups. The latter systematically destroyed the holy tombs and mausoleums of the city. Then, on Jan. 28, 2013, the French army recaptured Timbuktu through Operation Serval, and Burkina Faso forces working for Misma secured the city in April 2013.

The first UN personnel originated, as is usual in such a configuration, from the support, security and other substantive sections of the world body. They settled in the grounds of the Hendrina Khan Hotel in Timbuktu, chosen for its proximity to the heart of the city and easy access to the international airport.

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The Timbuktu base, along with the headquarters in Bamako, Mali’s capital, was the only establishment able to host approximately 20 UN staff members, operating with a minimum of guarantees for security, access, workplace conditions and accommodations.

Since then, a sense of security exists in Timbuktu and the rest of Mali, but it is not a standard known to developed countries. Instead, it is a security that is familiar only to populations living in a resource-poor environment hostile to human presence.

This sense of “security” amid Mali’s troubled post-conflict transition is coupled with climatic and demographic challenges and terrorist threats. Meanwhile, the Malian authorities, located mostly off-center in the southwest, must figure out how to equip an immense geographical space and administer populations culturally distrustful to any form of centralism and authority.

Other dangers loom from such neighbors as Niger, where ambushes were recently carried out against American and Nigerien troops, complicating safety concerns. On Oct. 26, three Chadians peacekeepers were murdered on the trans-Sahara axis in Mali, a far more lethal terrorist target than Timbuktu. As to the French-led G5 Sahel force, this an important venture that offers hope but who will finance it and what will its tactical weight be in light of the Minusma role?

From the perspective of urban Bamako, northern Mali — known as the Septentrion, and its Tuareg, Arab and Moorish populations — is an area that has always evoked anxiety and been left to its own devices.

In fact, Minusma is steeped in an area of endemic violence — not only in Timbuktu but also the vast surrounding region. At the top of the loop of the Niger River, at the point where it is closest to the Sahara, the “pass” of Timbuktu has been the theater for all types of trafficking for centuries.

The UN mission in Timbuktu must manage all sorts of physical hazards, including sporadic missile attacks by jihadists, as it aims to reach and influence villages and small cities in the Malian desert. A typical city street, above, in Timbuktu. BENOIT BRYCHE

Formerly, it was customary to ransom the Azalai, caravans carrying the rock salt extracted from the mines of Taoudeni and, on return, slaves or gold dust. Japanese SUVs have replaced dromedaries and perpetuate the flow of goods: consumer products, fuels, migrants, weapons . . . not to mention drugs. Before, everything was regulated by customary chiefs, leaving no room for small delinquencies, paradoxically making Timbuktu a rather safe city.

Now it is less true. Two types of insecurity inhabit the city: cultural, which is linked to the region where traffic and rivalries persist; and terrorism, now in the form of Minusma troops as targets.

Inevitability, these two types of violence overlap. Permeability among armed groups, drug-trafficking groups, organized crime, banditry and political-religious terrorism creates deep uncertainty and affects regional stability. The dynamic also includes secular disputes among the ethnic groups of the north, some of them having aspired in 2012 to create an independent state called Azawad, made up of Tuareg separatists. That demand was dropped in 2013.

Terrorists have been targeting Timbuktu repeatedly: on Feb. 5, 2016, when a suicide car attack hit a UN base and when a similar attack occurred on Aug. 14, 2017, against the mission’s headquarters. A missile targeting attempt was launched on the city’s airport on Nov. 1, 2016, followed by mortars on Nov. 29, 2016, missiles on Jan. 13, 2017 and, most recently, assaults in May and June 2017. The situation remains calm but unpredictable.

The deployment of UN personnel in Timbuktu is obviously demanding. The city is one of the hottest places on earth, where the climate is extremely arid for much of the year. At certain times, the city is swept by burning winds from the desert, making Timbuktu an abrasive place.

But Timbuktu is also a captivating city, inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage site list since 1988, although it is better known for its legend and manuscripts and desert festival. In this setting of natural and human-made hazards, three types of psychological reactions are observed among the international personnel in the mission: the traumatized, who have a hard time living with the omnipresent danger and who may wish to leave Timbuktu; the passionate, who are psychologically detached, either by situational intelligence or because of their personality; and the fatalists, who are fully aware of the risks and threats but who remain for financial considerations or career prospects.

The smallest detail, the author writes, can take on an “unsuspected dimension,” for UN peacekeepers working in Timbuktu. Here, a patrol on the outskirts, in the Sahara. BENOIT BRYCHE

The smallest detail, the slightest annoyance, can take on an unsuspected dimension, and the establishment of a UN base in the middle of a desert is a permanent human and logistical challenge. Even though progress has been made, it seems the sustainability of the mission is based on excellent telephone links with Bamako and management of staff physiological balance.

Timbuktu does not have as many strategic positions as other towns and cities in northern Mali — as “the city of the 333 saints,” for example, it retains a strong symbol that resonates in the media and international opinion. Yet many nongovernmental organizations are present in Timbuktu as part of the city’s reconstruction plan. Numerous outside delegations consider a trip to Timbuktu to be an essential symbol of visibility.

In that regard, the presence of Minusma in Timbuktu has a particular operational and symbolic dimension. But the security decline has had the insidious effect of causing the office to retreat into itself, limiting the missions in the field and contacts outside the city.

This retreat has resulted in more distance between the mission’s personnel and the city’s residents. In parallel, Minusma is more exposed to criticism from the various parties to the intra-Malian conflict, which has led to an increase in direct threats against UN personnel and restrictions on freedom of movement. Once these restrictions are in place, passive protective measures must be strengthened to save lives.

The Timbuktu headquarters and civilian base is constantly growing; it has reached almost 600 international and national staff from 60 countries. It has gradually integrated almost all major UN representations, including civil affairs, political affairs, legal affairs and human rights. The support sections represent three-quarters of the workforce (transportation, engineering) with an overrepresentation of aviation, de-miners and high-level technicians. The force component (military and contingents) and police units represent almost 2,000 officers.

The Timbuktu base has other assets: a supercamp located near the airport and a concentration of means and vectors — helicopters, fuel depot, one infantry battalion, a hospital, a security unit, a radio operators section, a military police — but is this enough protection?

Planted in the center of the desert, this lonely city still has good days ahead. But the region’s desire for autonomy must be countered so that it reintegrates into the rest of Malian society. That is when economic development can begin.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Benoit Bryche has been the first regional security officer for the Timbuktu office of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mal since 2013.
Previously, in the French army, he took part in several missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Afghanistan and Mali. He began as a cryptographer as a noncommissioned officer, then worked in the engineer corps as an officer, ending up in an engineer regiment in the famous mountain brigade.

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