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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 13:49 GMT
Nightmare train to Mali
The Dakar-Bamako railway
Frustrated fans said they should have taken a plane
By Chris Simpson in Bamako

Ousmane Sarr was furious.

On Saturday, the student had boarded the train from the Senegalese capital Dakar to Bamako, the capital of neighbouring Mali.


This is Africa. If you wanted to be sure of getting to the match on time, you should have set off a lot earlier

Malian train passenger

He and his friend were looking forward to getting to Monday's African Cup of Nations quarter-final between Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

More than 36 hours into their journey, they were stuck in the small town of Diamou in western Mali.

"If I'd known it would be anything like this, I'd have stayed home and watched the match on television with my friends," he fumed.

Stranded

The train had not moved in more than six hours.

News had filtered through of a derailment up the line, but there had been no official announcement.

Abdourahim Fall
Passenger Abdourahim Fall: 'It's pathetic'

"This is what we mean by under-development", said Mr Sarr. "What are African leaders doing for us? There is no way we are going to see the match at this rate."

Travelling companion Abdourahim Fall agreed.

"It's pathetic. If I've got any friends coming, I'll tell them to go by plane, no matter if it's more expensive," he said.

A Malian passenger snapped back that nobody was to blame for a derailment.

"This is Africa. If you wanted to be sure of getting to the match on time, you should have set off a lot earlier," he said.

"The real Senegalese fans are already in Bamako."

Close links

The Dakar-Bamako railway line runs for 1,250 km across a vast expanse of scrubland, linking towns and villages with virtually nothing in between.

Local children
Local children weren't worried about missing the match

Senegal and Mali were once joined together and the railway has helped keep the ties close, with thousands of traders going back and forth each month.

In the past few weeks, they have been joined by Senegalese football fans, offered cut-price tickets to go and cheer on Senegal's Lions of Teranga.

Moves are under way to modernise the railway, preparing it for privatisation.

A specially-refurbished train, the 'Laye Lo', had been laid on by the Senegalese authorities for the duration of the tournament.

But to the dismay of fans travelling east on Saturday, it was the older, Malian version in service.

Hint of desperation

Two hours behind schedule by the time it left Dakar, the train inched its ways slowly eastwards.

At every stop passengers clambered wearily down onto platforms lined with hopeful vendors, selling sachets of water, fruit, biscuits, or cooking rice and meat to order.

Congo's goalkeeper Tokala tackles Senegal's Henri Camara
Kick-off time was drawing ever nearer

There were whoops of delight from Malian fans as they tuned in their radios to reports of a 2-0 quarter-final win against South Africa.

The Senegalese fans offered congratulations, but there were increasing worries about their own match.

Maps were consulted, estimated times of arrival discussed.

"Don't forget that Mali is ten times bigger than Senegal", fans kept repeating to themselves. "But God is great," said the optimists.

By Monday morning, there was more than a hint of desperation.

"Are you sure this derailment isn't a plot against us?" one supporter joked to local rail officials as he sat on the platform.

Ousmane Sarr had had enough. Convinced the train was never going to make it, he flagged down a car.

"Bamako... the match... take us there."

Abdourahim Fall quickly took the remaining seat.

Dangerous roads

But the road journey proved equally tortuous.

Racing down miles and miles of empty dust-tracks, morning turned into afternoon and then into evening. Kick-off time drew nearer.

But the car was never going to make it.

Disaster struck just before dusk as the vehicle plunged off the road and flipped onto its back.

Driver and passengers emerged bruised, dusty and philosophical and made for the nearest village and television set.

There, surrounded by Senegalese railway workers, Oumar Sarr and his fellow football enthusiasts cheered Senegal to a 2-0 victory.

The train - derailment problems happily sorted - had eased into Bamako hours before.

See also:

06 Feb 02 | Cup of Nations
Senegal ready for revenge
04 Feb 02 | Cup of Nations
Dakar Lions beat brave Simbas
06 Feb 02 | Cup of Nations
Mali poised for the impossible
05 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Senegal
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