After the Canadians were freed about April 19, they had to wait in the desert for the arrival of the two Europeans, who were held by a different AQIM cell. Then the freed hostages and the negotiators, driving together in two pick-up trucks, embarked on the 700-kilometre journey through the Sahara to the northern town of Gao. There were no roads, just desert trails or wide-open sand. When they slept at night on the desert sand, Mr. Ould Sheik said, he shared his carpet with Mr. Fowler.
At one point, as they drove through the desert, a wind blew up and their vehicles were swallowed in a sandstorm. The Canadians were afraid that they would be lost.
“Even if you know the desert, there is always the wind,” the negotiator said. “But when the wind stopped, I knew exactly where we were.”
Mr. Ould Sheik insisted that he accepted the three-month hostage assignment because of his sense of duty to the President. He denies receiving any profits from the ransom. But several Malian officials laughed when told of his claim. There are even rumours that he might be arrested or snatched by U.S. special forces in their attempts to locate the AQIM cells.
“Since 2003, Baba Ould Sheik has been at the centre of all hostage releases in Mali,” said Serge Daniel, a journalist in Bamako who is writing a book on the hostage dramas. “In every case, there is money involved.”
Mr. Ould Sheik said the Canadian diplomats promised to give him a financial payment as a “gesture” for his expenses and his time. “They promised me many things, but to this day, I don't even have a piece of paper from Canada to thank me,” he said.
“I don't regret that I fought for Fowler's liberation, but I'm not happy with Canada. I thought they would at least give me a letter of thanks. The Canadians said that since I had used many people in the negotiations, and many vehicles, there would be a gesture for everyone. But it never came, and this caused a conflict among us. Everyone understood that Mali is poor, but we thought that Canada would help us.”
Even today, he said, his fellow negotiators are upset with him. “They think I was given something and didn't give it to them.”