Malians still wary of extremism in wake of liberation
Most of the reports coming from Mali in recent days have spoken of the liberation of the northern part of the country, where extremist jihadists and secular Tuareg rebels have been occupying cities, towns and villages for months.
The jihadists in particular have imposed a harsh form of Shariah law that included amputations of hands and feet as punishment for what they saw as contraventions of Islamic law.
Yet our recent road trip to the city of Gao, centre of much of the jihadist troops, revealed suggestions that the area still isn't secure from the threat of more attacks.
Just last week, French and Malian forces swept into Gao, beating back the militants from the city, sparking scenes of jubilation from the residents who endured under occupation.
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For the most part, though, journalists were unable to get to Gao to report on the fighting or even its aftermath. They were repeatedly blocked from travelling on the only road north to Gao by the Malian army, citing safety concerns.
So when we saw a chance to make it through, there was no hesitation. We were in the town of Sevare, home to an airfield and a military base, when we learned a convoy of French vehicles would leave the next morning. We were told we could tag along as long as we arrived at the gates of the base by 5 the next morning.
Guests in Gao
Between the French airstrikes and the general difficulty of life under Islamist rule for the past 10 months, the recently liberated Malian city of Gao doesn't get much electricity and food is a bit tricky to come by. Thankfully, we found a small restaurant. They even had cold drinks, including something called "American Cola" (a brand that was apparently OK under the Islamists).
The guest house where we stayed had been previously inhabited by militants, who used an AK-47 in lieu of a key to open the lock. The house had a generator but forget about internet access, which we need to send television and radio stories. Luckily, we carry a piece of equipment known as a BGan, which connects to a satellite to provide a dial-up-quality data connection. -- David Common
We watched as 61 vehicles — some ready for battle, others acting as lookouts and most trucks loaded with supplies for the troops in Gao — pulled out from the base. We fell in behind, finally able to do what so many other journalists had been unable to: Sail through the checkpoints. Still, that did not make for easy travel.
The convoy moved achingly slowly at points, covering ground carefully, watching for the enemy and alert to danger that was perceived to be getting worse the closer we got to Gao. We ended the day 160 kilometres short of the city after multiple roadside bombs were discovered up the road. It meant a chilly, unexpected night sleeping on the ground, under the stars.
The next morning, the wake-up call came in the form of an explosion nearby, smoke drifting across the sunrise. Startled, we looked to the French soldiers nearby who seemed relaxed as they prepared to leave. One even shouted "reveille" to his colleagues. It was a controlled explosion, we learned later, of the two mines discovered the day before.
That discovery, coupled with a similar bomb that killed four Malian soldiers days before, suggests the extremists may be engaging in new tactics: instead of fighting directly with troops, they will become an insurgency, employing guerrilla tactics similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
At the very least, it points to a lack of security around Gao. The French are said to be redeploying troops from Timbuktu to Gao to try to provide that further security.
Once we did arrive in Gao, there were evident signs of the damage done by both the occupation and the battle to take it back. Buildings reduced to rubble by airstrikes, gas stations closed due to fuel shortages and no electricity for most of the day.
Near a field where the Islamists carried out their amputations in full public view, black signs with white writing still stood: they were the stern reminders that up until last week, Shariah law was the law of the land.
For the residents, those are now difficult memories.
Ibrahim Konta says it was as if they were in prison for nine months. Now he says it's as though they're celebrating independence all over again.
He runs a hotel in Gao, but said the extremists moved in nine months ago.
"I ran one of the oldest and best hotels in Mali, but there's been no work for nine months there. Now that the French have come, we're cleaning it and getting it ready for customers."
His main worry now is that the French will leave and what he called a weak Malian army will fail to protect them, as it did nine months ago when Gao became a city under occupation.