Digging up the buried beer at Hotel Timbuktu

Thomas Fessy reading under umbrella

After months of Islamist rule, Timbuktu is getting back to normal - with thirsty journalists replacing the traditional tourists and backpackers.

The cloud of dust was so thick it was hard to breathe.

I was trying to write up another script in the corridor, but a member of the hotel staff was sweeping the floor, whipping the dust into the air.

This was the morning after the Hotel La Colombe (Dove Hotel) re-opened. It had been closed for 10 months during the occupation of al-Qaeda militants and their allies.

When a bunch of reporters showed up shortly after the French recaptured the city, hotel manager Mohamed Toure could not believe his ears. A group of Westerners was offering to pay to stay in a building where nothing was working!

Mr Toure looked up and lifted his arms to the sky. He gave us a huge smile of relief and thanked God, exclaiming: "Alhamdoulilah!"

"I didn't think I would ever see Europeans again," he said. He told us that tourism had suffered over the past few years because of a rise in hostage-taking in the region. Yet his hotel was never short of guests.

But the coup against the government in Bamako - followed by the arrival of Islamist militants in Timbuktu on 1 April last year - left him with no choice. He had to close.

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"I would have nothing to do," he told me, "but I would still be up by six o'clock and I would sit on the front steps of the hotel reading a novel all day long."

When we first arrived, a small crowd of local people emerged, desperate to help out and to earn some money. The reporters, they found, had a list of items they urgently required.

We needed a reliable power supply, so generators and good torches were priorities. Soon the hotel's terrace was unrecognisable, as a forest of satellite dishes and cables sprung up between the plastic tables and chairs.

A local man toured each table asking whether we fancied mutton for supper. He told us that he planned to roast a whole animal stuffed with couscous for everyone to share. It sounded good to us.

But when he came back with the cooked beast two hours later, it was clear he thought we had ordered the huge animal just for the four of us.

Happily a compromise was reached - we did have to pay for half of the sheep, but there was mutton for all the news teams.

When the Islamist fighters took over the city, they came to question the hotel manager, to ask if there was any foreign investment in his business.

He had to prove, with official documents, that he was of Moroccan origin and that the only money had come from his father. So the place was spared while banks, sacred tombs and shrines were destroyed.

Mohamed Toure did not have to answer any more questions, until the French started to drop bombs on houses they believed were occupied by jihadis.

People dance in the street in Timbuktu Many in Mali are experiencing freedom again, though conditions are far from normal

"About 20 of them forced themselves into my garden," recalled Mr Toure. "They hid under the trees before they left the city."

It did not take long for trade to return to Timbuktu. Within days of our arrival, a turbaned craftsman had laid out a piece of local fabric with cotton shirts, wooden souvenirs and Tuareg silver knives.

But conditions were still far from normal. When we did get to bed, sleep was difficult. Mattresses were dusty, bed-sheets filthy and torn.

Electricity was in short supply - it cut out at noon each day. We soon got used to those generators roaring away hour after hour.

Running water was also scarce. A few drops for a shower felt like a real luxury.

But the real surprises were called "Guinness" and "Castel". Cases of the foreign beers had been buried underground when the fundamentalist fighters banned alcohol in town. At last it was time to dig them up.

The bottles were caked in dust like a good French wine kept in a traditional cellar. There were not, however, very many of them so, of course, they were sold at wartime prices.

It has been a great thrill talking to men and women who are experiencing freedom again after months of harsh Islamist rule. The tourists and backpackers - who the people of Timbuktu were used to - have been replaced by journalists and soldiers.

Nevertheless, it means a bit of work and cash for residents who had little of either while the Islamists were in town.

Tourism used to generate significant revenues for Mali's economy. Soon it will benefit from a new flow of people - journalists, aid workers, soon-to-arrive UN staff and other soon-to-be permanent delegations.

As he struggled to believe his hotel was re-opening at long last, Mohamed Toure told me that, in the last few months, had only been able to afford one meal a day with his family.

"But since you guys arrived," he told me with a smile, "we're able to enjoy THREE meals once again!"

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