Malians greet liberation with euphoria and wariness

CBC reporters Laura Lynch and David Common are now in Mali and will be reporting on the state of the conflict with northern Islamists and whether the French-led counteroffensive will make the country safe.

Islamists in 'disarray,' French minister says

Residents of Timbuktu, in northern Mali, go about their business under the watchful of French special forces who parachuted into the region last week. (Harouna Traore / Associated Press)

The euphoria that greeted French troops who entered Mali this month, after Islamist militants threatened to invade the south of the country, has given way to wariness on the part of some of those most immediately affected by the fighting, our CBC reporting team in Mali is discovering.

Not unrealistically, these Malians are wondering what will follow.

The French, who are leading the way for soldiers from Mali and other West African nations, have progressed swiftly into the cities and town in the north that were overtaken by Islamists and Tuareg rebels 10 months ago.

The French-led counteroffensive began earlier in January, and now France's defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, says the three-week campaign has left the jihadists in disarray.

Although Ottawa is not saying, Canada's special forces may have played a role in the quick progress of this campaign.

They provided intelligence to the French military from neighbouring Niger, where they are helping train other troops from West Africa.

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There have been jubilant scenes in the north, where Malians are thanking the French for liberating them.

But in the capital Bamako, which militants were threatening to enter in mid-January, there are some who have been watching the unfolding events with much more caution.

They are the refugees who fled their homes in the north-central part of Mali when the Islamists moved in and began imposing their harsh version of sharia law. 

Mohammed Ag Sabou came to Bamako from the legendary city of Timbuktu six months ago with his family in tow, and they are living now in a house with three other families.

Suleiman Traore says Islamists cut off his right hand in punishment, claiming that he tried to steal their weapons. (David Common / CBC)

For him, there is only wariness and little talk of a lasting peace. . "Realistically, the military will have to stay there for a long time to strengthen security and prevent revenge attacks," he says. "There are still lots of Islamists, in the cities, in the mountains, in the desert."

Some people we met here cannot contemplate ever trying to find a peaceful arrangement with those who invaded their cities and their lives.

At a busy bus station in downtown Bamako, Suleiman Traore stands out.

He is wearing a heavy grey jacket with long sleeves in the intense heat of the midday sun, and he is wearing it for one sad reason. "It is to stop me from seeing that my hand isn't there anymore," he told us.

Traore was caught by militants last fall in Gao, and accused of stealing their weapons. For that, he said, they cut off his right hand.

He rolled up his sleeve to show the stump, and pronounced what he thinks should happen to the fighters who are now retreating.

"The best way to deal with them isn't to kill them," he says. "I think they should be mutilated, too, so they'll know the pain and the difficulties of living this way."

Others, though, are more optimistic of what the future might hold, including Mohammed Ibrahim Yattara.

A father of six, he said it was frightening to be in Gao when it was invaded last spring.

"When you see people shooting gunfire in front of your house or threatening you with a gun in front of your children, in front of your wife, that's a very scary thing," he said.  

Now though, he is smiling at the news that the last stronghold of the militants, Kidal, appears to have fallen.

Yattara thinks the war is all but won and his country will be saved.

Mohammed Ibrahim Yattara feels the war all but over and that he will be returning home soon. (Glen Kugelstadt / CBC)

"We think we'll have years, centuries of security and peace."

The Islamists themselves, however, insist this is just a pause, and foreign analysts have suggested this conflict may well evolve into a guerrilla war with smaller scale, irregular attacks, similar to Afghanistan.

For those waiting to return home, it may not yet be safe enough. 

Those we spoke with will watch and wait in their temporary homes, not yet knowing how long they will have to be refugees in their own land.