Kristina Chetcuti traces the roots of Mamadou Kamara, the Malian man who suspiciously died in custody last week, leaving behind an immigrant community reeling from shock

The popular statement, “From here to Timbuktu”, conjures up images of remote, distant parts of the earth. But Timbuktu is in fact a real city in the west African country of Mali.

And that is the journey, only in reverse, that Mamadou Kamara, the Malian immigrant, undertook in 2008. It took him months to get to Malta: he ended up here in August 2008 after buying a ticket on a rickety boat – destination unknown – from Libya.

It is not known what led Mr Kamara – affectionately known as “Zoto” - to flee Mali, his home country, but fellow Malian Ali Konate, who is the spokesman for the Malian community, tries to give possible reasons.

“It is very difficult to try to explain why we have to leave our country. From the outside, it looks like there is no trouble. But you have to live there to know what it’s like,” said Mr Konate.

When Mr Kamara left Mali in 2008, the situation was not politically volatile, but according to Mr Konate it was still “a very corrupt country” with lots of “persecution going on.” It is difficult, he said, for most Malians to get refugee status here in Malta because they are “deemed as ‘economic refugees’”.

Mali – which is comparable in size to South Africa or Peru – is considered to be one of the poorest countries in the world, with about half the population living below the international poverty line of €1 a day.

Some of Mali’s natural resources are gold, uranium, livestock and salt but ironically the average worker’s annual salary is approximately €1,100. The country’s economic structure centres around agriculture and fishing.

“But the poverty we could all live with, it’s the political situation that makes it dangerous,” said Mr Konate.

Mali is made up of eight regions each with its own tribe. People’s surnames indicate the tribe and the provenance of the family. “Which means that when people want to find you they can find you anywhere and you can never have peace of mind,” said Mr Konate, who has been in Malta since 2002.

Pressed for a better life, Malians flee their country. The journey to Europe can take months – depending from which border they leave. Mali is a landlocked country in Western Africa and borders Algeria to the north, Niger on the east, Cote d’Ivoire to the south, Guinea on the south-west and Senegal and Mauritania in the west.

“Most of the migrants leave from Algeria or Niger,” said Mr Konate.

For several decades after independence from France in 1960, Mali suffered droughts, rebellions, a coup and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992. It then experienced rapid economic growth after the 1990s and relative social stability.

But now it is all hanging in the balance once again. In January 2012, the steady collapse of state control over the north of the country was followed by an inconclusive military coup.

“There is now a political crisis, rebellion, deepening conflict, economic collapse,” said Mr Konate who is active in the Migrant’s Network for Equality. After managing to flee the country, the worst thing for immigrants like him is the long wait – 18 months – in the detention centre. “You can do nothing except think about your problems, you don’t know what will happen to you and you just imagine the worst,” he said, adding that it was often the cause of several mental problems.

He says he dreams of going back but knows that it is impossible for now, for the situation is still unsafe for the Malians. But he expresses concern at the death of Mr Kamara: “We are feeling that perhaps it is not safe, even here.”