Incident in Mali - A Cautionary Tale

Earlier this year, a good friend of Drive the Globe took a 6-month journey around Africa.  Anthony – one of the more “intrepid” travelers I know – is a Brit in his late 20s and has traveled to more than 100 countries around the world and I can attest to the fact that he is very experienced and has got a good head on his shoulders.  Below you’ll find a story (written by him) about an experience in Bamako, Mali that should give you pause and hopefully make you reflect back on your own experiences and think about how you would have handled yourself in a situation like this.

 Before Anthony begins his story, let me offer a brief disclaimer.  Drive the Globe does not endorse or not endorse, support or not support the behavior, the tactics and/or methods you’ll read about.  Rather, we post it as a “cautionary tale” about the vagaries of traveling in unfamiliar places and what can sometimes happen when one is “outside their comfort zone.”

Incident In Mali - A Cautionary Tale

Earlier this year, a good friend of Drive the Globe took a 6-month journey around Africa.  Anthony – one of the more “intrepid” travelers I know – is a Brit in his late 20s and has traveled to more than 100 countries around the world and I can attest to the fact that he is very experienced and has got a good head on his shoulders.  Below you’ll find a story (written by him) about an experience in Bamako, Mali that should give you pause and hopefully make you reflect back on your own experiences and think about how you would have handled yourself in a situation like this.

 Before Anthony begins his story, let me offer a brief disclaimer.  Drive the Globe does not endorse or not endorse, support or not support the behavior, the tactics and/or methods you’ll read about.  Rather, we post it as a “cautionary tale” about the vagaries of traveling in unfamiliar places and what can sometimes happen when one is “outside their comfort zone.”

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“I'll come straight out and say it: I made a rookie mistake.  Even after 6 months traveling around Africa I managed to miss the telltale signs of a bad situation and didn't get myself out before it was too late.

After meeting David, a local Malian guide, we spent a couple of days chatting, telling stories, meeting his family and friends and getting an experience of local culture in Bamako.  It was really fun at first.  On the third day he asked to borrow some money to help a “relative” who had been in a bike accident.  Not a lot of money, but this is where it started.  The next day I asked for the money back and, no surprise, David didn't have it: the line was that some friend was keeping some money for him and would bring it by.  The day and night passed and his friend had not arrived with the money.  “No problem”, says David, “I'll meet you at the hotel tomorrow at 7am before you leave on the bus.”

 7am the next day, David's nowhere to be seen.  I ask a few of the local guys; one had seen him getting drunk (probably with my money) at 5am somewhere in town.  I spent most of the day asking around, calling his friends and combing the streets downtown but still no luck.  Eventually, I get a call from a friend at 5pm that David has arrived at his family home and I can find him there.  So I head over by cab to confront him.  It's in this situation where you face the biggest challenge: you're owed money by someone who probably doesn't have it, you're foreign and on family ground so don't want to make a scene, and if you're too forceful the guy will probably just take off altogether.  “Softly, softly” was the only way to go.

Unsurprisingly, I got a pack of lies from the start.  'Oh, I was there at 6am’, ‘My friend is coming’.  Four hours later and of course the friend didn't arrive where we were waiting for him and David is getting more and more drunk on the beer he’s buying, probably with my money.  Next we go back to his family’s house, I press, David pushes back and tells me not to quarrel in the family home.  So the cycle continues.  Around midnight there was a terrible rainstorm, truly tropical.  The family house did not have enough shelter so we moved to another bar to wait it out. I'd almost given up hope, I had friends who were at the hotel expecting me back and I can't do a thing.  I stare out at the rain, David is getting more drunk, surrounded by other drunk old men with nothing better to do, reggae playing on the stereo, trying to laugh at the absurdity of the situation I'm in.  But I can't.

 David asks to borrow my phone and sneaks off round the corner.  I follow and see him calling someone - he tells me to give him a minute.  At least he's not running away. Five minutes later he returns and this is where things took a turn for the worse.  I ask for my phone back and he says he's given it to a kid to go and top up the credit.  30 minutes pass and I realize that not only has he taken my money, now he's either stolen or sold my phone.  The bar is closing soon and I've had enough.  Despite his family being within earshot, I protest and ask for my money, my phone and what the hell is going on.  I get a predictable, overdramatic response: 'Why are you disturbing the people like this?'

By this point, the “dance” had been going on for several hours.  I didn't even care about the money any more; I knew I wasn't going to get it.  However, I needed the phone to text friends at the hotel traveling with me that I was OK as I knew they'd be worrying.  I relayed these exact feelings and even offered some money to buy back my telephone if he had sold it; I just wanted it back.  David suggested we could go with his friend on the friend’s moped and look for the kid who allegedly still had the phone, but I'd have to give the money up front for fuel.  So I did: I just wanted this to end.  We start driving and almost immediately hit a Police blockade.  It's illegal to travel 3-up on a moped and on top of that neither David nor I had identification papers.  They used the fuel money to bribe the Police officers and we were allowed to leave.

 At this point, it was 3am and very dark out, I could trust neither of the men I was with, I wasn’t sure where I was in Bamako, I had no money to get home and I was heading God only knows where under the pretense of finding my phone.  I told the guy driving to stop the moped so I could go to the toilet - I needed to think.  I figured I could flag down a taxi, get to a ATM and I'd have to accept the loss of the phone.  As I returned to the bike to tell the two guys to leave, things took a turn for the worse.  A battered Renault Clio with a poorly written 'Police' on the side door pulled up just next to the bike.  All four men in the car were young-looking and in plain clothes; one of them in the back had his full face covered with a turban.  After a brief second, one of them jumped out of the passenger side with an AK47 and started over to us in an aggressive, threatening manner.  This is one of those moments where you only get one chance to make your assessment and act quickly.

 After having earlier seen uniformed Police with new pickup trucks, I wasn't buying that these were real Police.  Somehow they must all be in it together and David has brought me here to put the final nail in the coffin.  It's strange how the mind works in these situations.  All the training, all the lessons learned, all the reason you can muster has to be pulled together in a split second or it could be the end.  I figured that waiting around for these thugs to bundle me into the car and take me wherever would be my worst-case scenario.  I thought that on foot I could at least try to find help, a car, real Police, anything: but in that car I thought I was dead.

So I ran.

 I got 15 meters away and my sandal broke.  I fell.  The big man with the AK gave chase.  I got up, saw him and figured I didn't want to wait for him to get a shot off.  I stepped to him and put my hands on the rifle.  This was the main threat and as long as it wasn't pointed at me I was still in with a chance.  We struggled.  I managed to get my hands on the grip, point the gun away from us both and pull the trigger.  Not loaded.  Thank God. 

 With the immediate danger out of the way I began to scream for help as loud as my lungs would allow.  I shouted in French, English, anything I could think of.  This was real, deep down, primal fear.  The gun was out of the equation, but the other three “thugs” had now caught up and they were trying to wrestle me to the ground.  I tried to wave down cars to stop but no one would.  A few locals started to come out from the roadside and were curiously watching as I struggled against my attackers.  One man managed to pull the AK away from the scrap, very sensibly, and now it was just a matter of trying to hold on as long as I could.  They finally tripped me to the ground.  My head hit the tarmac hard, causing a flash of white behind my left eye. It hurt like hell, but I had to keep fighting.  I was still screaming for help.  The man with the turban pulled out a set of handcuffs.  Not good.  They got one hand locked and nearly pulled my other shoulder out of socket to get the other.  Now I was in trouble.  The cuffs hurt like hell and I couldn't use my arms.  I asked to see ID or some sort of proof that maybe this was just a horrible mistake.  The big man pulled out a normal wallet with a laminated piece of pink paper, the same as all the fake guides in town, with 'Police' and some hand writing; I was still not buying it.

 They drag me over to the car.  One guy is speaking in English to me a little and for some reason this is slightly reassuring, but I still can't trust them.  I mustn't.  The car is old: a 1990s Renault and then I see the plates: French.  Why would a modern day Police force that has new pickups be using this old piece of crap with a non-Malian license plate?  The paranoia was working overtime.  Finally, I see the big man using a radio.  I can't hear what they're saying, but it was the final piece of information and I thought, maybe, just maybe they could be legit.  The little guy with the turban had been trying to tug me over to the door by my cuffs and my wrists were now bleeding.  I gave it up.  I would at least get in the car and deal with whatever happened next when the time came.  We drove off into the night.  I was looking out the windows for something to navigate from, something I could recognize.  We drove through some backstreets, past an industrial estate, a school:  not a Police station in sight.

Finally, outside a building I see an old man in a blue uniform.  He was Police!  I was safe.  I was bundled into the inspector's office where a 60 year-old gentleman was fighting to stay awake to listen to the story.  I apologized immediately.  It was a bad end to a very bad day, but at least I was safe.  The inspector took down the story, David (the instigator of all this, who the Police had also picked up) was blabbering away and his mate had snuck out the back door to bribe his way out.  I was honest.  I had seen four non-uniformed guys in a battered car, with a rifle at 4am with two strangers and I didn't like the look of it.  You hear all the stories of bandits or fake police from travelers or in the books and that was exactly what it had become.  I was wrong, but I was OK and whatever happened next didn't matter because I was at least alive to find out.

They took my personal items and led us to a small, dark cell with 10 other young men either sleeping or propped up against the wall. The cell was not much to speak of:  4 walls, some graffiti and the usual steel bars for the door, some mats on the floor, a water bucket, a toilet bucket and some old stale pasta from the day before.  We'd be spending the night here.  David continued blabbering away to anyone who would listen while I sat against the wall, silent, not wanting to fall asleep.  Time passed quickly.  I was able to look at my wounds: deep cuts on my wrists, grazed forearms, shoulders and scraped knees.  No serious damage though and the adrenaline was keeping the pain at bay.

 It must have been two or three hours before the first call of the Mosque next door for prayer.  One of my cellmates got up to pray, the others just continued snoring away in the dark.  More time passed and the big Police guy whom I had mistaken for a “thug” and with whom I fought the night before came to the cell.  He told me everything would be OK, he had no problem with me, he understood, and that he would do what he could to help.  Real kindness and an honest smile went a long way at this point. 

 Around 9am the Chief of Police came to address the cell.  He was young and smartly dressed, but his manner was fierce.  I suppose it had to be.  He asked me to explain myself and I did with my best high school French.  He was not impressed and called me a few names that I'm glad I didn't understand.  Next was David who was still yapping away.  The Chief was having none of it and delivered a short, sharp jab to David’s forehead through the bars.  Eventually the entourage left and another officer ushered me out of the cells and into his office to give my statement. 

 Afterwards, David was called in and I was sent back to the cell.  I chatted with the other young lads being held.  I told them the story of the night before and how I was still without my telephone.  One lad piped up and mentioned seeing David using the telephone while I was just giving my statement!  I couldn't believe it!  He'd had it the whole time and the whole reason I was in jail was because of this!  I asked the lads to help me and when David returned one of them asked to use his phone to call a mate.  David immediately got edgy and didn't know what to say.  I let him wallow for a minute and then gave him his options: he could either give the phone back now or I could ask one of the kind officers to search him and follow up with the report on why he still had my phone after all that had gone before.  He handed it over.  That was the end of it.  I had nothing more to say.

In the end, the Chief charged me for 2 offences: no ID papers and fighting with Police, which carried a fine of about $60 altogether.  I apologized again and promised not to fight any more of his officers.  I ran into the big guy again (his name was Malik) and we shook hands, I offered to pay for his laundry (which he declined) and it was over.  I got back to the hotel had some food, a much needed cold beer and reflected on the past 24 hours.  I'm not proud of what became of the last days in Bamako.  I learned a lot.  I don't want to think that I will never trust strangers again, but the experience has hardened me a little.  It's a simple lesson - never give money - and the situation escalated beyond my control.  I'm wiser for it now.”