Approximately 20 people were killed and more than 100 held hostage in a terrorist attack that laid siege to the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, for nearly 10 hours Friday, Nov. 20. For Alna native Amy Faulkingham, the attack was close to home.
Faulkingham has lived and worked in Bamako since September 2014. It is the second time she has called Mali her home – Faulkingham served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small Malian village from 1999 to 2001.
With Islamic extremism on the rise in the West African nation and foreigners, especially Americans, a high-value terrorist target, Faulkingham is preparing to return to the United States. She is leaving a country she loves and people who have become her extended family out of fear for her safety.
“Malians don’t want this,” Faulkingham said. “This is not Mali. Part of me believes this is a temporary situation. Malians would give their life to save their country.”
Raised in Alna, Faulkingham graduated from Wiscasset High School in 1993. After earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Faulkingham volunteered for the Peace Corps. In 1999, she was dispatched to Mali and after a short internship devoted to learning the native Malian dialects of Bambara and Markakan, Faulkingham was assigned to a small village.
During her time in the Peace Corps, Faulkingham grew to love the country and the people, who were warm and welcoming, she said. The relationships in the village were so close, she said she always felt safe.
Malians do not believe in being alone and social visits are not pre-planned, she said. People drop by for visits and they are always welcomed. It does not matter how much food a person has, Faulkingham said. Malians will always offer to share it.
“There are no strangers in Mali,” Faulkingham said. “People here take care of each other.”
Since the end of her time in the Peace Corps in 2001, Faulkingham has wanted to return to Mali. After more than 10 years and with no commitments to keep her in the United States, Faulkingham searched for a job opportunity in the country. “One day I decided it was time,” she said.
She found employment working as a teacher in the nation’s capital and returned in September 2014.
The culture in Mali’s cities is different than village life, she said. In the cities, there is a distinct separation between the expatriate community and native Malians, with much less interaction between the two than Faulkingham was accustomed to.
Mali had undergone dramatic transformations since her time as a Peace Corps volunteer, she said. Mali is one of Africa’s fastest-growing countries and has seen fast-paced development.
When Faulkingham was a Peace Corps volunteer, getting her on the phone was a nightmare, said Forrest Faulkingham, her father. Now, with cellphone and internet access throughout the country, Amy Faulkingham is able to communicate with her family in Alna several times a week.
Obtaining a Snickers bar in Mali was “a once-in-a-blue-moon event that used to make Peace Corps volunteers go crazy,” Faulkingham said. Now, there are few products and imported goods unavailable in Mali, she said.
Mali’s dramatic economic development was accompanied by political instability, mostly centered in the country’s northern region, Faulkingham said.
In 2015 alone there have been seven terrorist attacks targeting U.N. workers and expatriates in Mali’s central and southern regions. Faulkingham has been in the country for most of them.
A separatist movement emerged in Northern Mali in 2012, led by the Tuarag people, who sought independence for a northern region known as Azawad. The political instability created by the rebellion resulted in a military coup ousting the nation’s democratically elected president, according to The New York Times.
Government forces, with support from France – Mali was formerly a French colony – and the U.N., beat back the insurgency and democratic elections were once again held in Mali in 2013. The separatist movement, however, became infused with Islamic extremists and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb increased its presence and influence in Mali, according to the Agence France-Presse.
Rarely targeting villages and rural areas, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other Islamic extremist groups launch their attacks in Mali’s cities and target Westerners and expatriates. It is where they get “the most bang for their buck,” Faulkingham said.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed credit for the Nov. 20 attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel and a Nov. 28 rocket attack on a U.N. base in the north, which killed three U.N. workers. According to The Jerusalem Post, the recent attacks by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb are part of an ongoing struggle between al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13 Paris attack, to claim leadership of the international jihadi movement.
For her protection, Faulkingham has avoided the large supermarkets, restaurants, and locations in Bamako popular with the expatriate community. A swimmer, Faulkingham used to pay to use the pools in Bamako hotels, but no longer does so.
Faulkingham was in school teaching when the Nov. 20 attack occurred. The response to the attack was “immediate and incredible,” Faulkingham said. The school immediately locked down and stayed in lockdown until the siege of the Radisson Blu was over and the assailants were killed.
The security response was led by Malian forces, Faulkingham said. “This is Mali’s situation,” she said. “I’m impressed with how they handled it.”
Following the attack, Faulkingham stayed indoors for days before the security situation improved. It was the last straw for her and “sealed the deal” for her decision to return to the United States. “Right now I’m a target,” she said.
“When you watch the news, or see the movies, you think this is exciting, but it’s not,” she said. “It’s not glamorous. It’s not exciting. I don’t want to be afraid to go to the grocery store.”
Despite the security situation, there is an effort in Bamako to continue life as usual, she said. The schools, markets, and health clinics still function, albeit with an increased security presence. “I have a choice,” Faulkingham said. “I can leave. Malians have no choice.”
As Faulkingham winds down her life in Mali and prepares to return to the United States, her hopes and prayers are with the people, she said. Continued improvements in health care, education, and children’s and women’s rights are her hopes for the future of the country.
“Of course, I want to see them past this current situation,” she said.
She remembers with fondness returning to the village where she worked while in the Peace Corps and the welcome she received after nearly a decade.
Traffic in the city is chaotic, she said, and accidents are a frequent occurrence. It is only a matter of minutes, however, before motorists go from yelling at each over the accident to exchanging jokes and slapping each other on the back, she said.
“That’s Mali,” Faulkingham said. “That’s the Mali I want to be a part of.”