NEWSLETTER - February 4, 2013

Dear Friends of Caravan to Class,

I certainly did not expect to be sending an update only one month after my New Year's welcome e-mail on January 1, 2013. In that e-mail, I mentioned my strong desire to see the freedom of those in Northern Mali, particularly in Timbuktu, restored. Just as quickly and surprisingly as Timbuktu was taken over by the Islamic militants of Ansar Dine and MUJAO on April 1, 2012, it was remarkably and thankfully liberated by French forces on January 27, 2013.

What happened?

Ansar Dine is likely regretting the day it decided to take more Malian territory and move westward on a number of strategic towns leading towards Mali's capital, Bamako. It was clear that without any opposition, the Islamic militants could have ended up in Bamako, where, due to the large population centers in Bamako and along the way, the bloodshed would have been appalling. This compelled the French to act. As the Western country closest to Mali, having granted the nation its independence in 1962 and sharing a close cultural heritage, including the French language, France did not want to have the many deaths, that could have resulted from an invasion of Bamako, on its hands. Despite UN Resolution 2085, authorizing the use of force in Northern Mali, it is doubtful that, with the Islamic militants aggressive actions taking additional Malian territory, the French would have acted this quickly.

The French decision was vindicated when the world woke up on January 22, 2013. A group affiliated with Ansar Dine had executed one of the deadliest and most dramatic global hostage crises in two decades, leaving over 30 foreign hostages dead in the Northern Sahara desert region of Algeria. The world learned, once again, that the only way to keep extremist terrorism from spreading and intensifying is to respond with force. We have learned this lesson before, most recently in Libya, with the death of our Ambassador and three other Americans.

Amazingly, the French, with the help of Malian soldiers, were rapidly deployed and quickly liberated much of Northern Mali. We have heard firsthand now, from all the major news outlets, things that Caravan to Class has unfortunately known all along; of the great suffering of the local population at the hands off the Islamist extremists. As is the case with all tyranny, this was less about God and religion and more about power and evil; about imposing their will and the subjugation of other human beings.

Caravan to Class Founder and Executive Director Barry Hoffner pictured with a group during a recent visit to Mali

Where do we go from here?

Remarkably, by the time you receive this e-mail, France's President will have made a visit to Timbuktu. After I learned of the Islamic takeover of Timbuktu on April 1, 2012, and knowing that I was likely one of the last foreigners to be there before the city was captured, I feared I might never get to visit again. This was reinforced after months of inaction on the part of the international community. Even after the UN Resolution 2085 was passed, authorizing the use of force against the Islamic militants in Mali, it was not clear whether or not the international community would take action. The impact of the visit by President Hollande of France cannot be overstated. It is a game-changer!

Ansar Dine, Where are they Now?

There are still many chapters of this story to be written! French forces have been almost completely unopposed. Thus the question remains, was Ansar Dine a "Paper Tiger" or do they have a plan to counterattack? Will the French, with the help of West African forces (Chadian and Nigerian troops), be able to secure a large enough desert perimeter to create peace and stability in Northern Mali, particularly in Timbuktu? Will the MNLA, the Tuareg nationalist group, first violently opposed to the Malian government, now collaborating with the French to capture Ansar Dine leaders, be able to co-exist with the Malian forces?

How long will the French stay?

Vive la France, no question! But if I read between the lines, the French would love nothing more than to claim victory and pull their forces out of Mali. After all, how long has it been since the French have intervened so successfully? Also, if George W. can claim Mission Accomplished just as things started to get dicey in Iraq, why can't the French say "Mission Accomplit"? It is clear that serious ethnic tensions are simmering and could erupt at any moment, as a result of the subjugation of the majority "black" population by the lighter-skinned Arab/Tuareg minority during their nine month reign over Timbuktu. As always, it is the innocent who suffer in these conflicts, as the vast majority of Tuareg understandably want the Malian government to do more for them, but do not side with the Islamic militants of Ansar Dine and MUJAO. The French will likely push for a UN Peacekeeping force to try to internationalize the stabilization effort.

What Next?

Much remains to be done in Timbuktu, however the signs are positive. I have spoken to two hotel owners who are moving back to Timbuktu shortly to reopen their hotels. One has been closed for 18 months. In addition, the Ministry of Education has recently sanctioned the reopening of schools in Timbuktu and will shortly reopen its offices there. I can only hope that the significant attention of the world on Timbuktu will produce more than just a short flurry of interest from the international community and will lead to much better conditions for the deserving people of this region. Timbuktu has a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is the African gateway to the Sahara Desert, and it has a rich history and culture that needs to survive!

Happy school girl in Mali Characteristic rooftop architecture in Mali

Caravan to Class' plans

Caravan to Class can now see the day when we can, once again, pursue our mission of literacy for villages in the Timbuktu area. I have not been able to say this since April 1, 2012. Since then, we have focused our very moderate resources and time on bringing attention to the plight of Northern Mali, (through the press and with the state department) and on supporting a couple of Northern Malian communities (from villages where Caravan to Class has schools) living as refugees in neighboring Burkina Faso.

Group of school girls in one of Caravan to Class' schools in Mali Desert landscape in Northern Mali

We are now pivoting to prepare for the reopening of our schools. A number of the heads of the villages where Caravan to Class has schools are not yet ready to move back to Timbuktu. They are waiting to make sure that the conditions are right for their return; meaning that the risk of ethnic reprisals has lessened. We are hoping that our next update will be because enough stability has returned to Timbuktu such that we are ready to reopen our schools.

In the meantime, if anyone has any connections or leads for Caravan to Class to cultivate or to solicit foundation support, we would be grateful. We feel the responsibility to have the resources necessary to fully fund all seven schools when they are ready to reopen. We are grateful for your attention and hope that when we are ready to reopen our schools, you will find a way to support the deserving children in our schools in their quest for a literate future. At roughly $100/year per child (including teachers' salaries, school supplies, and basic nutrition) the investment in creating the first generation of literate children in the Southern Sahara since the 15th century, is a compelling investment.


Barry Hoffner, Founder and Executive Director of Caravan to Class


Read the interview with CTC founder Barry Hoffner,  catch up with progress on literacy programs and Caravan-to-Class press releases.


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Drone footage of the Kokonji school newly-built by Caravan to Class in Mali