Effects of Jihadist Blockade and Artillery Fire Ravage Timbuktu Following UN Withdrawal
- After a month and a half, Timbuktu is almost completely isolated due to a jihadist blockade.
- The city is being bombarded and running out of supplies.
- The UN stabilization force has withdrawn under the orders of Mali’s ruling junta.
When the jihadists in Mali declared their blockade on the ancient city of Timbuktu, the residents initially believed it to be just another act to intimidate them.
However, after a month and a half, the reality has set in, and the tens of thousands of inhabitants find themselves almost completely disconnected from the outside world.
Multiple witnesses have described firsthand the scarcity and fear that now define their lives. Shells rain down on the city, and there is a growing sense of danger as essential resources begin to dwindle.
In early August, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist alliance, Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), announced their intention to declare “war in the Timbuktu region.”
Abdoul Aziz Mohamed Yehiya, a civil society organizer, stated, “Initially, we believed these were just voice messages aiming to spread fear, but today, we are experiencing exactly what they had promised – a complete blockade.”
A Timbuktu resident, who wished to remain anonymous, reported encountering heavily armed jihadists on motorbikes equipped with 12.7 mm machine guns while returning to the city from Goundam, approximately 80 kilometers southwest.
The Niger River, which had previously provided an alternate transportation route for northern towns, became unsafe after a jihadist attack on a ferry resulted in numerous civilian casualties on September 7. Consequently, all river boat journeys have been canceled until further notice.
Furthermore, Sky Mali, the sole airline serving Timbuktu, has temporarily suspended its flights to the city after a shell attack near the airport.
The jihadist groups have expanded their control over rural areas surrounding the more fortified towns in northern Mali. Their aim seems to be exerting pressure on the central government rather than capturing these towns.
Mali’s ruling junta, which came to power in 2020, faces numerous security challenges across the country. The junta has downplayed the situation in Timbuktu and initially refused to acknowledge the blockade. However, on September 5, they finally admitted to the “restriction on the flow of goods” to the city and the “skyrocketing prices of basic necessities.”
Trade has significantly suffered in the city, with lorries unable to reach Timbuktu. Oumar Baraka, the president of a youth association, lamented, “If you navigate through the town, you will find parked lorries that cannot move. No lorries are entering Timbuktu.” Shopkeepers, like Baba Mohamed, stated that the city is in crisis, with shortages of sugar, milk, and oil becoming increasingly severe.
In this impoverished and long-neglected region, consumers bear the brunt of shortages and speculation. Baraka mentioned that a liter of petrol now costs 1,250 CFA francs (R40), compared to the previous price of 700 CFA francs.
Residents also face physical danger as the UN stabilization force MINUSMA withdraws from the area, leaving a tighter grip on Timbuktu in the hands of the jihadists who continue to shell the city.
A resident described the atmosphere, saying, “People used to go out and have fun, but now they are disappearing due to the shells being fired in the streets. People are very scared.”
In addition to the jihadist insurgency, there is also a threat of an offensive from predominantly Tuareg and Arab separatist groups in northern Mali.
Arab and Tuareg residents of Timbuktu have emptied their shops out of fear of potential reprisals. The streets are empty, and anxiety prevails.
The separatist groups initially captured Timbuktu in 2012 but were later ousted by the jihadists who destroyed some of the city’s renowned mausoleums, sparking international outrage.
With the Malian authorities displaying reluctance to negotiate with the terrorists and denying the existence of a blockade, a civil society leader expressed despair, stating, “I don’t see any way out.” They urged traditional authorities to initiate talks with the jihadists.
During a meeting with representatives from Timbuktu on September 5, Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga emphasized the need to endure difficulties and reverse the situation, acknowledging it as a painful process.