The first soldier walked to the middle of the barricaded road, an AK-47 hanging from his shoulder. He aimed a flashlight at our sedan and motioned us to pull over to the side of the dirt road. Francois, host, brought the car to a stop and tried to reassure me, “Don’t worry,” he said. He just wants money.”
It was about 1 a.m. and we were returning home after a night out. Save for a row of dust-covered bushes, the streets were empty. I worried that I would be subjected to an onerous interrogation if this soldier knew that I was a journalist. The soldier took measured steps toward the car and rapped his knuckles on hood. “Vos cartes d’identités” he barked. Francois twisted his torso and pulled his ID out of his pocket. I rummaged through my purse wondering if I should show him my Canadian ID or my Ghanaian passport. I gave him the Canadian ID and watched as he rotated the card between his fingers.
“You are a foreigner, what brings you to Bamako?” he asked. “I am here on holidays,” I answered, my throat suddenly parched. It was a lie. I arrived in Mali on Jan. 3rd, 2013 to cover Al-Qaeda’s attempt to seize control of the West African country. Bamako, the capital city, was on high alert.
“How long is she staying?” His words were directed at Francois, but his eyes were fixed on my cleavage. Francois began to speak in the Bambara, the local dialect. They spoke rapidly, but judging by the consistent use of the word “foreigner”, I knew I was the subject.
I began to sweat. “What’s going on?” I whispered at Francois. “Don’t worry,” he shot back, “it’s nothing.” But there was an edge to his tone that alarmed me. The soldier folded his arms across his chest and shifted from foot to foot. “I th-think you sh-should let us go now” Francois muttered. “No. She has to see the general first,” he said pointing at a military truck parked near the bush. My heart began to race. “Francois, call your dad.” It was more of a plea than an order. But, the moment he drew his phone, the soldier became visibly agitated. “Both of you, get out, now!” He said pointing his rifle in the car. My knees wobbled. I stepped out of the car, smoothing the peplum top. A blast of headlights hit my thighs as I walked toward the van. I immediately regretted wearing skinny jeans that hugged my buxom frame. Three men in military fatigue were waiting.
A burly man, with skin darker than soot, addressed me with a sly smile. “What brings you here?” he asked. Francois stepped in front of me and saluted the General in the driver’s seat. They argued in Bamabara for about 15 minutes before he reverted to French. “Sir, she’s my guest from Canada. We are just trying to go home.” “Is that so?” the general asked, arching his eyebrow skeptically. Instead of replying, Francois reached into his pocket and gave him a business card.
“Sir, here’s my father’s card. You should call him.” As the general read the inscription on the card, his clenched jaw softened.
“Oh, but you are Mr. Ahmadu’s son. Why didn’t you say that earlier?” I knew that Francois’s father held a respectable position in the government, but the fact that this general recognized his name had to be a good sign. “Allez,” the general beckoned at the soldier, “let them go.”
Back in the car, I did not wait to fasten my seatbelt before I turned to Francois. “What was that about?”
“They wanted me to leave you behind.”