WHILE 2012 was an incredibly tough year for Hay-on- Wye’s twin town of Timbuktu, people on the Herefordshire border are striving to give friends in Mali the help and support they need.

Earlier last year, following a political coup and uprising, Islamist rebels took over and imposed strict Sharia law.

There were rumours of schools and hospitals being shut and ancient monuments being destroyed while thousands of refugees fled for safety.

Last month, the UN security council unanimously authorised the deployment of an African-led military force to help defeat al-Qaida and other militants in northern Mali.

Throughout these troubles, people of Hay – who were twinned with Timbuktu in 2007 – have been raising awareness of the humanitarian crisis 2,450 miles away and raising money.

“Naturally people in Hay have asked what they can do to help,” said Anne Hillyer, who runs the Two Towns One World (TTOW) project from Hay’s town council offices.

“But answering this question is far from easy. The Islamist rebels occupying Timbuktu will not allow aid from non-Islamic sources so it is difficult to support those who need it most.

Hereford Times: Bonbacar Toure, Derek Addyman, Idrissa Maiga Touareg, Anne Brichto and Luke Skinner seal the friendship between Hay and Timbuktu

Above: Bonbacar Toure, Derek Addyman, Idressia Maiga Touareg, Anne Brichto and Luke Skinner back in 2007 when Hay was twinned with Timbuktu

“There has been fund-raising for the refugees of Timbuktu and some people are still in contact with friends who remain in the city but this becomes more difficult as the infrastructure breaks down. It is the only contact some have with the outside world and they appreciate our moral support, as insignificant as it feels to us in the circumstances.”

“Knowing there is outside support must be a ray of hope in an otherwise terrible situation as the very culture and fabric of their lives is being dismantled.”

The TTOW project, funded by the EU and Welsh Assembly Government, aims to increase awareness and understanding of the Millennium Development Goals for eradicating poverty by 2015 and does this by working with community groups, teachers and education professionals in and around Hay.

Progress is difficult due to lack of communication but in June, Elmehdi Ag Wakina, director of TTOW’s partner organisation in Timbuktu, visited Hay.

He spoke at Hay Festival about the political situation and conditions for people in his home town.

Also this year, TTOW awarded £3,500 grants to local groups Musician and Artists for Development (MAD) and Hay TV. MAD will use the money to run a series of activities called Peace by Piece which will culminate in a community event in Hay during Michaelmas, while Hay TV is launching a Timbuktu linked TV channel shortly.

Looking ahead, a Timbuktu Trail should open in Hay in April and there will be a Timbuktu forum, for anyone interested in helping the country, at The Swan in Hay from 7.30pm on Wednesday, January 16.