Friday, July 30, 2010

Please say it isn't so.....

M
y head realizes that it's important to stay safe when travelling to certain parts of the world but my heart is always crushed when I find out that a place that I've long dreamed of going is out of bounds because of violence.


But my head always wins in this competition.  Life is too valuable for me to unwisely put myself in a situation where I would be in harm's way. As a result, I always check the US State Department's website for current travel warnings before I travel.

And as I've mentioned in previous blog postings, one of the advantages of working with an international organization is that we have staff posted all around the world and I have taken advantage of them for all sorts of information....especially security.

Today, I emailed a senior staff member working in one of our offices in Bamako to tell him that I would be visiting his office on an official IT mission and that I would be taking time afterwards to travel through Mali. I gave him my travel itinerary and he was very quick to reply. My heart sank when I read his words about Timbuktu. 
Hi Julee

Kindly send us your itinerary once available—we’ll arrange for the driver to pick you up as well as Talibah. Many thanks for the offer to bring some accessories—definitely welcome. I’ll look into it and may request a couple of items.

Re-your planned trip, all the spots you mentioned are indeed the nicest place to visit in Mali. We can certainly discuss some details when you are in Bamako. I would however carefully access the plan to visit Timbuktu as most (if not all) Embassies strongly recommend to avoid the area given the security situation there (region under UN zone 3). You may want to visit the US Department of State web site on the issue and/or any other ministry of foreign affairs websites (France, UK, etc). And I recommend you talk with Security at HQ before you departs from DC and get their views. The Dogon region (driving through Segou, Djenne, Mopti) is so far exempt from any security incident. Do not hesitate to contact me if you need more information.


Cheers. Olivier
I immediately went and checked the State Department website and lo and behold, they had issued a travel warning for Mali just yesterday.  Can you believe the timing?? 

The travel warning was issued just 3 days after the French government confirmed that French national Michel Germaneau, who was kidnapped on April 22 near Arlit in north-western Niger, had been executed by terrorists.  This is very scary news and enough to shake anyone into accepting the realities of the danger of travelling to certain regions in Mali which shares an eastern border with Niger.


The information posted on the website warns U.S. citizens of the risk of travel to Mali, and continues to recommend against all travel to the north of the country, including the region of Timbuktu, due to the kidnapping threats against Westerners.  All of Mali is okay except for the northern region.  How bad is my luck?

As paraphrased from the information posted up on the site:
"The State Department issued a Worldwide Caution on February 12, 2010, indicating that the Islamic extremist group Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has been designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union, had declared its intention to attack Western targets.
As of early July 2010, the Department has been aware of several separate sources of information suggesting AQIM’s ongoing interest in kidnapping Westerners in the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso border area and as far south as Bamako. 
The U.S. Embassy in Bamako has designated northern regions of Mali as “restricted without prior authorization” for purposes of travel by U.S. Government employees, contractors, grantees, and their dependents. Prior to traveling to these areas, U.S. Government employees in Mali are required to have the written approval of the U.S. Ambassador to Mali. This designation is based on the presence of AQIM as well as Tuareg rebel and banditry activity. This restriction does not apply to travelers who are not associated with the U.S. Government, but should be taken into account when planning travel. The restriction is in effect for the region of Kidal; the region of Gao including the road to Ansongo and the border with Niger; and the region of Timbuktu."
The words posted up on the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office website pretty much echoes those on the State Department site. 

Although I don't leave for Mali for another 4 weeks, I don't see the danger letting up any time soon.  After all, this is an extremist wing of Al-Qaeda that's reigning terror in northern Mali and they are steadfastly hell bent on harming innocent people.  But I don't want to over panic either.  I cannot live my life sheltering myself from the world.  After all, I went to Nepal despite the US State Department Travel Warning against travel to the country and I was fine,  So, I will play it by ear for now but I will continue to keep my eyes open to the warnings.....and of course, heed the advice of Olivier and the security experts. 

As disappointed as I might be to not be able to see Timbuktu, I want to come home alive!