A huge leap backwards. Refugee style.

Sorry to all those people who prefer to look at the photos rather than read a lot of text. There are not many this time. This is the story about escaping from a scary situation. The quickest and safest route took me largely through places I had either already travelled, or which are not of a lot of interest. And for extended periods of time I was not in the mood to dig out my camera and take photos.


After the weekend in a hotel in Bamako I moved to a more overlander type place south of the river. I did this in order to save some money on what would probably be a longer stay in the capital. Only later I learned what a lucky move I had made. The place was one of those where all the overlanders go. I had heard about it well in advance. The crowd there was half overlanders, some in cars some on motorbikes, some waiting to depart on a plane back. A woman doing research, some volunteers, journalists, and a Tuareg man who lived there permanently since his house was destroyed by hostile militias. The property was just south of the river, separated by a bridge from the city centre.


It was a Wednesday afternoon when I came back from the Burkina Faso embassy where I had collected my visa. This particular embassy is right behind the government buildings in Bamako. I had probably been back for about an hour when I was made aware of the gunfire audible in the distance. Nobody knew what was going on however somebody had figured out that the next day there was a demonstration of the military on. A demonstration of the military? Well, it’s strange, but not everything always goes straight into the western mind here in Africa. We learned from the internet that what was going on was a mutiny of soldiers. It seemed a bit weird to us that it looked like all the locals had known about a demonstration going on and nobody had informed us. The gunfire came closer and at times we heard people screaming. Late at night we learned that the national TV had been taken over by the military and later the presidential palace.


It was well after midnight when I was sitting outside still. The gunfire continued and sometimes it was really close. Eventually it was time to go to sleep but the whole atmosphere was very worrying.


Thursday morning we learned that what happened was a coup d’etat. The gunfire continued but it got less and less during the afternoon. Then, it was strangely quiet outside. There was a curfew in place, but you wouldn’t want to stray out anyway. A woman showed up and introduced herself as the German consul to Bamako. She said there was looting and muggings in the city centre and warned us about leaving the property, especially while the curfew was in place. She registered all the Germans and those EU nationals who are unrepresented in Mali, a bunch of Portuguese people and me that was. She handed out lists of airlines and travel agencies. The borders were closed and so was the airport. The portuguese bunch had finished their trip and were due to leave that day. Late in the night they headed off to the airport but came back later without their luggage.


The curfew remained in place on Thursday and Friday, although it got very quiet outside, no more shooting. There is a swimming pool at a nearby hotel and I went there sometimes just for a change of scenery. Food stocks were running low so I ventured outside to find something to eat. It was strangely calm. No traffic, no people on the streets, virtually all shops closed. The German consul came once more in the afternoon. Everybody had questions, but she didnt have any substantial answers. How could she? Information was changing by the half hour and little of it was reliable. There was a chance that borders would open again after the weekend, but nobody knew. Her last question was whether we were all well. Somebody jokingly said yes, unless the beer stock runs out. She headed off and came back with a crate of Warsteiner beer.


Most of the time a military coup is actually very boring. You can’t go anywhere or do anything. You don’t know anything. We checked the news for updates every few minutes but there was nothing. Confined in a small space with a bunch of strangers you start to go onto each others nerves. It was hot. Temperatures in the afternoon were always well above 40 degrees and it did not cool to 30 degrees over night. Electricity for the fans was intermittent. The curfew was partially lifted during the weekend, by day it was allowed to go out. There wasn’t much outside though. Restaurants and supermarkets remained closed since people feared looting. And the streets remained strangely calm.


The Tuareg man got upset with our moaning. We had our embassies to go to he said, but him being Malian, he didn’t have anywhere to turn to. He would leave the country at the earliest possibility, he said. I felt sorry for him.


On face value, things looked as if they were back to normal on Tuesday. The borders remained closed but the airport opened for half a day. Bamako was busy and restaurants and supermarkets were open again. At least there was some change of scenery when going outside. The city centre, or anywhere north of the river remained a no go zone though. The Portuguese group headed out to the airport and did not return, they had probably made it. A French couple had not, they were back the next morning. To my surprise a man arrived in a car. He had driven in from Guinea completely ignorant of the coup and hit a small time frame during which the border was open. Larissa, the German consul popped in most days and told us about the latest developments. Primarily about the rebels gaining land in the north and east. And whether or not the borders and the airport was open, mostly neither of them. By then we were on first name terms.


Only now it started to settle in what had happened. I couldn’t believe I had cycled into a military coup. Straight ahead, 10th gear. Had I been nave? There was plenty of time to contemplate. By the time I entered, there was no mention of increased security risk on any foreign office website I read. Even the paranoid ones, like my own country’s had stated that Bamako and surroundings were safe. Of course some places in the north of the country were off limits, but this was far away in the Sahara. Otherwise Mali had been regarded as a model of democracy and development in West Africa, perfectly stable for 20 years.


The presidents of Mali’s neighbouring countries were supposed to fly in for negotiations on Thursday. Due to a demonstration in favour of the coup at Bamako airport the plane did not land but carried on to Abidjan. There they agreed on sanctions against Mali, namely blocking the borders and cut off the cash supply from the central bank. Western aid money had been cut a few days early.


These news broke while we were sitting with Larissa, this time over Paulaner Weibier. The stay in Bamako would be for longer, for unlimited time. While still digesting the news, we learned that they had set an ultimatum of 72 hours before the sanctions would be imposed. Larissa said what I thought anyway, leave as quickly as you can. Things are going to turn nasty.


I contemplated my situation. The distance to the closest border crossing into Burkina Faso was about 360 km, doable on the bike but not easily. It would be a gamble on no breakdown, and nobody knew how many roadblocks would be on the way, and, worse, how much land the Tuareg rebels had gained in this chaos. Guinea is closer, doable in a day but I had no visa. Same story for Ivory Coast and Mauritania, the latter would even take me through an unsafe area. I decided to buy one of these horribly expensive airline tickets that one can claim the money back first thing the next morning. Martin, the man who had arrived in a car in the middle of the chaos offered me a lift to Senegal. This seemed to be the only safe place reachable in a short time.


Larissa said there had been violence at the airport as people fought to get onto flights, until the police went in. I dismissed the idea of flying out. I hated to go backwards, but the only chance for a timely escape I could see was going back to Senegal.


I loaded the bike onto Martin’s car and we headed off at lunchtime. It was a long shot still. We would have to get out of Bamako, potentially passing a number of roadblocks, and through Kati, where the coup leader and the bulk of those soldiers loyal to him were located.


It was the same road that I came. On the outskirts of Bamako there was remarkably little traffic, the petrol stations deserted however at the police station started a lorry queue, seemingly kilometres long. It is only a short drive to Kati where they had put tanks and heavy weapons along the road, and soldiers with machine guns lined the area around the barracks. It was all strange and intimidating, but nobody stopped us. It all went well though and by the early evening we were deeply in the Savannah well away from the action. It took us two days to reach the border.


A remote border crossing should not be too difficult to pass. When I came the other way, Senegalese immigration was very unfriendly, but he didn’t give me trouble. It was different this time. Martin, with his car went first and was back in five minutes. It was certainly different for me. I went in and he took my passport. Flipped all the pages, back and forth, and again. He flipped it back to me and said there is no visa. I said Austrians do not need a visa to enter Senegal, and if he doesn’t know would he please call the Senegalese embassy in Nouakchott, from where I claimed I got this information. ‘For me Austrians need a visa’ he said once more, than added, ‘you have to go back to Bamako and apply for a visa’. Then he turned away and ignored me. A bunch of Guinean people entered the office and he wasted a lot of time thoroughly checking their identity cards, claimed he couldn’t read one, then demanded vaccination certificates. It was too obvious what was going on, especially when one of those guys produced a 2000 CFA note neatly folded between his fingers. By then I had been in this immigration office for one and a half hours.


I had to escape but was not yet prepared to break my principles. I was alone with the policeman again. I pointed out the two entry stamps for Senegal, after all I had entered the country twice in the past two months without a visa. He gave them a thorough check. ‘They don’t know anything there and stamp everything’. Yes, and you at your backvelder border crossing, you know everything, I thought. My passport flew through the air once more and landed right in front of me on the desk. ‘I don’t let you in without a visa’ he said, then left me standing alone in the office. First I had to swallow what had happened. Then I realised that I had to do something fast. I contemplated my options. There was no way I would go back into Mali. Alone in the office, I thought, I could just stamp the passport myself, but I didn’t find the stamp and inkpad quickly. I went outside and saw the officer eating lunch around the corner, well out of sight of the road. There was no motorised vehicle in sight. I had slept in the village on the way out so I knew there were no cars there either. I went back to Martin’s car and said let’s head off quickly.


Once more I was illegally in the country, a bloody border jumper. I told Martin what had happened, and that we would have to stop in Kedougou and find immigration, where I would have to beg for an entry stamp. I was stressed to the point that I was shivering. Had that thug back at the border seen me leaving and call somebody to catch us on the road? Would a routine check reveal I was illegally in the country? We arrived in Kedougou and I asked my way to immigration. A young policeman was sitting outside of the office pouring his tea. Putting on my best smile I spent about ten minutes having small talk, desperately trying to make friends with him. The guy was very friendly, and I came forward with my issue. I told him my story, slightly altered here and there, and before I had finished he said no problem, took me to his supervisor, who didn’t even listen to my story while he pressed the stamp into my passport and wished me bonne route. Needless to mention my relief.


We headed for a camp right on the shore of the Gambia river which I was not all too keen to see again. It was closed for refurbishment but the manager let us pitch up the tents just outside and gave us a shower to use. We were travelling in a group of four, there was Martin driving his Land Rover, Cathi and Tobias from a village barely 20 km away from my hometown Salzburg on motorbikes, and me.



When you hook up with other people of course you also hook up with their problems. Tobias had a serious issue with his motorbike so in the morning he and Martin, a car mechanic by profession, made a lengthy attempt to fix it. By the time they were finished we decided it was too hot to leave and we stayed for another day.


My buddies were all heading for Mauritania, and back to Europe and took the shortest route through Senegal. Another two days later we arrived in Saint Louis. Sounds familiar? Well, it is the same Saint Louis where I had been stuck waiting for my parcel. In four days I made a staggering 1300 km leap backwards, a distance that would normally take me a month on the bicycle, easily.


And this is where I am now, safe in familiar territory, but a long way back. It has been a stressful two weeks and for a day I didn’t do much more than sleeping. It was a very strange experience. I still cannot believe I cycled straight into a military coup. The biggest damage done is the one to my confidence and to my motivation. This is primarily due to the fact that I went a long way backwards, and that at the moment there are a lot of dead ends across West Africa. At some stage I will have to go to Dakar, either to get a visa or to board a flight. First, I will have to make my mind up on how I want to continue.


For a continuation of the story in Mali read the news websites. I don’t have any different source. The embargo is in place and things will probably turn nasty. Fuel and food will run out first. The money supply from the central bank has been cut so liquidity will run out in round about 10 days. I am very sorry for the people. It was not meant that I see much of the country, but I did take in the friendly people, the smiles, the generosity. I am very sorry for them. I could run away, but they cannot.