Rukmini Callimachi was working in a hotel restaurant in Timbuktu when her colleague Baba Ahmed returned from a trip into the desert. “J’ai besoin d’argent pour acheter une pelle,” he told her: I need money to buy a shovel.
It was February, and they had spent most of their trip to the city in northern Mali scouring abandoned government buildings for documents left behind by a vanquished al-Qaida-backed government.
But Ahmed, a native of the area and AP’s Mali correspondent, had gone for a drive while Callimachi typed a draft based on what they’d found. When his car got stuck in the sand, children came to help him, and they pointed to a buried body in a shallow grave nearby.
Callimachi, AP’s West Africa bureau chief, and Ahmed bought a shovel at a local market and headed out to the spot. “That was the first of many moments when I thought, ‘What am I doing? Is this OK?’” Callimachi said in a phone call with Poynter. “This is not really the way a journalist normally operates.”
They discovered two bodies. Over the next months, during many trips to Mali, Callimachi would find other bodies, most of which belonged to Arab and Tuareg residents who hadn’t fled after French and Malian troops recaptured the area earlier this year.
The Malian military has denied any involvement with the deaths, demanding Callimachi give it evidence of the bodies. When she did, a spokesperson for the ministry of defense said, “We have nothing more to say about this.”
On Tuesday, the AP reported that the editor of Maliactu.net removed Callimachi’s story from the site after he said “the Malian ministries of defense and communication warned in separate calls they would block his website in Mali, effectively shutting down his business.”
Callimachi’s has always injected more color into her writing than one might expect from an AP reporter. This is not her first time finding bodies. “The mistake a lot of foreign correspondents make is they get wrapped up in reporting what they think sounds important rather than what interests people,” she told me when we spoke in March after she received an ASNE award for her work on famine.
But her story about looking for bodies of people who’ve disappeared in Mali takes a tack seen even less frequently in AP copy: It’s told in the first person.
The first piece in February about the bodies was composed as a “normal wire story,” Callimachi said. When she tried to write her latest article the same way, “the story was incomprehensible,” she said. “It gets so hard to explain and be transparent about how we found him.”
Commenters on the February story questioned the apparent serendipity of an AP reporter being nearby when a family found a loved one’s grave, she said. With the first-person story, Callimachi and her editor Mary Rajkumar explained to readers how she happened to witness so many scenes: Callimachi, acting on tips, went out to the desert, and found the bodies.
“The story is not about something that happens to Rukmini,” Rajkumar said by phone. But “you couldn’t have the story without her.” Callimachi said the families of some who disappeared kept urging her to find out what happened. “They were calling me every couple of days,” she said. “And at a certain point you just feel this sense of responsibility: If we don’t take this to its final conclusion, I don’t think the Malian military will ever take responsibility.”
Rajkumar said there was pushback up the chain about the first-person device in Callimachi’s story: “I think that was helpful,” she said. Callimachi “sometimes gets frustrated because the ‘Why do we care?’ in West Africa tends to be strong,” she said. “As I’ve told her, in the end it’s not a bad thing to force yourself to say that.”
Rajkumar says she’d love to see more unconventional writing at AP. “As the AP changes, we’re going to need to be doing this as well,” she said. “Breaking news is our bread and butter, but there’s room for all kinds of stories. Our stories need to tell people something they don’t know.”
Callimachi, who lives in Senegal, said she has no idea whether she will have trouble getting into northern Mali in the future. Rajkumar said the AP considered her future access but “we felt very strongly that this was something we needed to uncover and we needed to write about.” Also, “I would say I am hopeful in this case that Mali’s government will do the right thing. It’s really a turning point for their government.”
As for Callimachi grabbing a shovel and becoming a primary character in the story, Rajkumar noted the reporter “didn’t actually dig up the bodies. She uncovered them, she moved enough sand to make them visible, and then she turned them over to the families.” They took care to tell family members the story was coming out, when it was finally ready. They decided not to use the name of a shepherd who helped Callimachi because “he might not know the full extent of the danger he might be in,” Rajkumar said.
“Remains” is probably a better term than “bodies” for some of the people Callimachi helped find: “All that’s left is clothes and shoes,” the reporter said of the last two. In one of Rebecca Blackwell’s photos for the story, a man searching for his missing brother lifts up his body by his shirt, “and the entire thing just falls away,” Callimachi said. “It’s just like dust falling away.”