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 Sharia 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, center of much of the jihadist troops, revealed suggestions that the area still isn’t secure from the threat of more attacks.
It was just last week that 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.
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 traveling on the only road north to Gao by the Malian army, which cited 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 a.m. the next day.
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 kilometers 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 of the 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.
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 air strikes, 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, Sharia law was the law of the land.
For the residents, those are now difficult memories. One man named Ibrahim Konta says it was like they were in prison for nine months. Now he says it’s as though they’re celebrating independence all over again.
Konta runs a hotel in Gao, but he said the extremists moved in nine months ago, shutting down his business.
“I ran one of the oldest and best hotels in Mali, but there’s been no work for nine months there,” Konta said. “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 said is a weak Malian army will fail to protect them, as it did nine months ago when Gao became a city under occupation.