The ancient city of Timbuktu sits close to the Niger river, just south of the vast Sahara desert. It is a maze of dusty, litter strewn roads lined with original and distinctive architecture. I was there in November 2009 alongside BBC Africa Correspondent Andrew Harding and Producer Tara Neil. At that time it was crowded with European tourists keen to see the cities libraries and Mosques, the market was thriving and the Malian government was in total control.
Now the city is controlled by an uneasy federation of Toureg separatists and Al-Qaeda inspired islamist groups who are keen to impose sharia law – A shocking turn of events initiated by a military coup in Mali that has spectacularly failed in its original aim of improving the army and helping it to win the war against the Toureg.
While we were there we made four films for the BBC Ten o’clock News. Firstly we looked at the growing threat of Al Qaeda in the region, a threat that has since proved itself to be very real:
The Second of our films examined how local solutions are helping to reverse the drought that has been affecting the region for many years:
Thirdly we visited some of the cities libraries, the repositories of some of Africa’s most important documents and proof of a thriving civilisation from a time well before the Europeans arrived to carve up the continent.
And finally we explored the dying salt trade, and looked at how technology is changing an ancient industry.
It was a fascinating trip, and an amazing chance to shine a light on a little known corner of the world. I am now watching developments in Mali closely and I hope one day to be able to return.