Mina Alessane remembers the morning the MNLA rebels came to Timbuktu. She was standing by the gate of her house when a column of pickup trucks filled with armed men came past. It was 1 April 2012, and the Saharan city echoed to the sound of gunfire that day – smoke billowed out of the Malian army camp, government flags were burned and every building connected with the state was ransacked. The following morning, al-Qaida-allied jihadists arrived and announced they would rule Timbuktu in the name of Islam and under sharia law. Many people didn’t hang around to find out precisely what that meant, and took the long desert track south.
Alessane, 52, from the Bela tribe, sits on a mattress in a room decorated with lacework peacocks and explains her exodus. She and the 13 members of her family who shared the house clung on in Timbuktu for a terrifying month, but it was the economy that forced them to go in the end. Her husband had retired two months before the occupation began, and she earned a small income making traditional Tuareg indigo cloth.
But when the rebels arrived, the markets stopped functioning. She sold as much of her work as she could, along with her goats, then packed a few bags and became one of more than half a million people from the north – including at least two-thirds of Timbuktu’s population – who fled south or to neighbouring countries.
From the government-held town of Sévaré and later Ségou, she followed events in the city closely, and was “so happy” on the day of liberation. “I was just overwhelmed,” she says. Every day she was away, “she felt bad in her heart”, because her home was in Timbuktu.
In February 2013, 15 days after the town was liberated, she was back in her house; she and her family are among the 370,000 people to have returned. More are on their way. According to Alessane, not a single person she met from the north intends to stay in the south.
The talented 53-year Mauritanian-born and Mali-raised filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako recounted these tragic events in his latest César-awarded film Timbuktu – a highly acclaimed movie at Cannes. The film has won 7 prizes: best film, best director, best original screenplay, best cinematography, best editing, best sound, best music.
“The role of the artist is to be the witness of life,” Sissako told Reuters in a interview.
In the opening scenes, Islamist rebels hand off a blindfolded Western hostage from one to another with a practical discussion of the captive’s medication regimen. These are some of the ways in which the 53-year-old filmmaker said he wanted to show the human side of jihadists and the people they harshly ruled. He said he did not want to cast them as one-dimensional villains or victims.
“If you want to talk about drama and humanity, it’s very important to use a beautiful way to talk about that (and) not to be spectacular,” he said. “I try to explain that Islam was kidnapped by a few people with a very short vision of the world,” he added. “Nobody comes (into) life with a Kalashnikov or beard.” One of the reasons Sissako said he focuses on the minutia of daily life in occupied Timbuktu is to show what western media often overlooks.
Sissako believes the nomination alone can show Africa in a different light to the rest of the world.
“I’m here because I’m African … Africa needs to be more considered because Africa is not only war or famine,” he concluded.
Cover Image | Abderrahmane Sissako (center) on the red carpet with the cast and other guests: Abel Jafri (4th left), Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino (5th right), Toulou Kiki (4th right), Hichem Yacoubi (2nd left), e altri ospiti- Cannes (maggio 2014 | Cannes)
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