What makes Mali a unique country to travel to?
Mali is a developing country in western Africa which remains politically unstable following the coup d’etat in March 2012 and the ongoing conflict in northern Mali. The official language is French; however, Bambara is the lingua franca and a total of thirteen local languages are also spoken and have status as national languages. The capital of Mali is Bamako (1.8 million, 2009 census estimate). Facilities for tourism are limited and their development has stalled since March. There is a serious threat of terrorist activities in Mali’s three northern regions (Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, which make up nearly 60 percent of the country’s area) and in remote areas along the Mauritanian border. Following the fall of the north to rebel groups in April 2012, several terrorist organizations including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have been increasing their use of the area as a safe haven for holding hostages and planning operations. While the Government of Mali, assisted by French and African intervention forces, regained control over the major northern cities in early 2013, these terrorist organizations still retain the capacity to launch attacks from their bases in the countryside.
Violent crime in Mali is infrequent, but petty crimes, such as pick pocketing and simple theft, are common in urban areas. Passports and wallets should be closely guarded when in crowded outdoor areas and open-air markets. Individuals are advised against traveling on the Bamako-Dakar railroad and should be vigilant for pickpockets, especially at night. Criminals will not hesitate to use violence if they encounter resistance from their victims. There are sporadic reports of nighttime robberies occurring on the roads outside of the capital; tourists should not drive outside of Bamako at night. Travelers should stay alert, remain in groups, and avoid poorly lit areas after dark.
Violent criminal activity does occasionally occur in Bamako. During and after the coup d’état in March 2012, violent attacks and looting were reported around Bamako. Violent attacks were also reported prior to the coup, most occurring south of the Niger River in the neighborhood of Badalabougou. Most reported attacks took place at night. The majority targeted unaccompanied individuals and ranged from muggings at gun- or knife-point to physical assaults. Many of the attacks occurred near the residences of the victims, both inside and outside of their vehicles.
Sporadic banditry and random carjackings have historically plagued Mali's vast northern desert region and its borders with Mauritania and Niger. While banditry has not targeted U.S. citizens specifically, such acts of violence cannot be predicted. The current instability in the north has increased the risk of carjacking, kidnapping, and banditry. In November 2011, two French nationals were kidnapped from their hotel rooms in Hombori, one of whom was reportedly beheaded in early 2013. The following day, one German was killed while a Dutch citizen, a Swedish citizen, and a South African were kidnapped in Timbuktu. In April 2012, a Swiss national was kidnapped in Timbuktu and seven Algerian diplomats were kidnapped in Gao. In November 2012, a French national was kidnapped near the town of Kayes, close to the Senegalese/Mauritanian border.
While in Mali, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. In some places you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you. In some places driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. There are also some acts that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Mali, your U.S. passport will not help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It is very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going. Persons violating Mali’s laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Mali are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
The U.S. Embassy does not always receive timely notification by Malian authorities of the arrest of U.S. citizens. You are encouraged to carry a copy of your passport with you at all times, so that proof of identity and citizenship are readily available in the event of questioning by local authorities. If arrested, you should always politely insist that you be allowed to contact the U.S. Embassy
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Medical facilities in Mali are extremely limited, especially outside of Bamako. Psychiatric care to the same standard as that practiced in the United States does not exist. The U.S. Embassy in Bamako maintains a list of physicians and other healthcare professionals who have indicated willingness to treat U.S. citizen patients. The Embassy is unable to recommend medical professionals or facilities.
Most U.S. medicines are unavailable; European medications are more easily found, and can be obtained at pharmacies throughout Bamako, and are usually less expensive than those in the United States. Travelers should carry with them an adequate supply of needed medication and prescription drugs, along with copies of the prescriptions, including the generic names for the drugs. Be careful to avoid purchasing potentially dangerous counterfeit medications when buying on the local market in Mali.
Safety and Security
Continued insecurity exists in Mali. Major cities in northern Mali (including Gao and Timbutktu) were liberated by French, Malian, and other international forces in January 2013, but Islamic extremist elements including Ansar al-Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO), and al-Qaida in the Lands of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), remain active in the region. As noted in the Department of State’s Worldwide Caution, both the United States and the European Union have designated AQIM as a terrorist organization. AQIM has declared its intention to attack Western targets throughout the Sahel (including Mali, Mauritania, and Niger), and has claimed responsibility for numerous recent kidnappings/attempted kidnappings and other violent events in the region. Given these threats, on January 19, the U.S. Embassy advised U.S. citizens in Mali to consider leaving the country.
On January 10, the Islamic extremist elements captured the northern town of Konna, but after French military intervention and heavy fighting, extremists were driven out of the city. On January 11, the Malian government declared a State of Emergency in Mali, allowing the government to take extraordinary measures to deal with the crisis in the north. French, Malian, and other international forces continued to push into northern Mali, liberating Timbuktu and Gao by January 25, but asymmetrical attacks remain a threat throughout the entire country. On February 9-10, military checkpoints in Gao were hit by two separate suicide bombers, injuring one Malian soldier. Also on February 10, French forces repelled an attack on Gao by rebel forces, which led to heavy fighting inside the city.
Large and small street demonstrations occur regularly in Bamako. U.S. citizens should avoid street demonstrations and maintain security awareness at all times. Although demonstrations can occur spontaneously, large student demonstrations typically begin in January and February and continue through May. You should be particularly vigilant at these times.
For hundreds of years, the Sahel has been used by traffickers of arms, drugs, and persons because of its remoteness and centralized location between Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. While these elements usually attempt to avoid contact with outsiders, even an accidental encounter could generate a violent response due to the illicit nature of their activities.
The U.S. Embassy in Bamako has restricted all travel outside of the city of Bamako for its direct-hire official employees. Prior to traveling outside of Bamako, U.S. government employees are required to have the written approval of the U.S. Ambassador to Mali. Though this restriction does not apply to private U.S. citizens, it should be taken into account by all U.S. citizens contemplating travel to and within Mali.
Although we place the highest priority on the safe recovery of kidnapped U.S. citizens, it is U.S. policy not to make concessions to kidnappers. This, along with the vast and remote territory where kidnappers usually hold their victims, limits our ability to assist kidnap victims.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in a foreign country, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Mali is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
U.S. citizens traveling by road in Mali should exercise extreme caution. Mali has paved roads leading from Bamako to most major cities in the south. During the rainy season from mid-June to mid-September, some unpaved roads may be impassable. On many roads outside of the capital, deep sand and ditches are common. Four-wheel drive vehicles with spare tires and emergency equipment are recommended. Travelers must be prepared to repair their own vehicles should they break down or become stuck. Travelers should also carry plenty of food and water.
We strongly urge all travelers to avoid traveling after dark on roads outside of urban centers. The roads from Gao to Kidal and Menaka, and the roads around Timbuktu, are desert tracks with long isolated stretches. Travel on these roads is strongly discouraged due to the threat of kidnapping and terrorism (see THREATS TO SAFETY AND SECURITY section above).
Drivers travel on the right-hand side of the road in Mali. Speed limits range from 40-60 km per hour (25-40 miles per hour) within towns, to 100 km per hour (60 miles per hour) between cities. Road conditions often require much lower speeds. Due to safety concerns, we recommend against the use of motorbikes, van taxis, and public transportation. Excessive speeds, poorly maintained vehicles, lack of street lighting, and roving livestock pose serious road hazards. Many vehicles are not well-maintained, and headlights are either extremely dim or not used at all, while rear lights or reflectors are often missing or broken. Driving conditions in the capital of Bamako can be particularly dangerous due to limited street lighting, the absence of sidewalks for pedestrians, and the number of motorcycles, mopeds, and bicycles.