Northern Mali is a forbidding realm.
This vast, arid stretch of the Sahara, where the searing heat can set cars on fire, has been riven by war in recent years.
The complex, confusing conflict has entangled al Qaeda-linked jihadists, the Malian army, French-led international forces and the Tuaregs, an indigenous group that has been fighting for independence in the region for decades.
Few Western journalists dare to venture into the dangerous, unstable area.
But Ferhat Bouda keeps going back.
An Algerian-born photographer who now lives in Germany, Bouda says he visits northern Mali to show the world the reality on the ground in this sometimes misunderstood region.
Bouda’s own ethnic roots are part of what drives his interest and work in the region. He considers himself a Berber, the North African people that comprise the Tuaregs and other groups.
“These people who are dying, they could be my children, my parents,” he says of the Tuaregs. “It’s my family.”
Bouda says he never wanted to be a war photographer, but in northern Mali, “conflict is unfortunately the reality at the moment.”
He takes great personal risks to capture images of daily life in the region, where suicide bombings have become a frequent threat.
On his latest visit in early November, he and a companion endured a grueling 10-day journey to reach Kidal, a key northern Malian town at the heart of recent conflict.
They arrived November 2, the same day that two French journalists were abducted and killed after leaving the home of a leader of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a secular Tuareg separatist group.
The killings plunged Kidal, already a dangerous place, deeper into chaos. French troops told Bouda to leave town immediately. But Bouda and his cameraman colleague decided to stay.
Working in the sandy, war-damaged town was harder than ever. MNLA fighters, who had accompanied Bouda for security on previous occasions, said they weren’t allowed to leave their barracks with their weapons. Everybody was on edge.
Some of Bouda’s photographs capture the uneasy tedium of life inside the separatist bases. Rebel soldiers rest and smoke next to their guns and ammunition; a soldier stands alert after gunshots are heard outside the barracks.
The images contrast with some of the pictures Bouda took during his previous visit to Kidal, in June, when he had greater freedom to explore. Those photos show men, women and children in Kidal’s dusty streets.
Bouda says he wants to portray the Tuaregs as he sees them: a people with their own history and culture – and distinct from the Islamist fighters.
“The al Qaeda ideology can’t work with the Tuaregs,” he says. “Women are the backbone of their culture.” In his opinion, the Muslim faith for most Tuaregs is more a form of meditation.
What draws him back to this harsh, poverty-ridden world is the “incredible human warmth” of the people, which he says can’t be found in Western countries.
“They have nothing,” Bouda says. “But everything they have, they share it with you.”
It’s a life stripped bare of basic conveniences taken for granted in the West. Nights are often spent sleeping in the open air with little in the way of shelter. Meals are repetitive bouts of floury bread. There’s no air conditioning to fend off the oppressive heat.
But material comforts aren’t what many Tuaregs seek, according to Bouda.
“For them, the best comfort is peace,” he says.
- Jethro Mullen, CNN