Voices from newly-liberated Malian city: “We can’t thank France enough”

Photo taken in Gao in May 2012. Posters proclaiming sharia law, such as the one shown above, have now been replaced by French and Malian flags. 
 
Four days after its capture by French and Malian forces, the city of Gao has come back to life. Our Observers on the ground are celebrating the departure of Islamist extremists and report feeling secure thanks to the presence of French and Malian coalition forces. Nonetheless, our Observers caution against getting too complacent, given that some of the extremists’ supporters could still be hiding out in or near the city.
 
The French Army and Malian forces received a heroes’ welcome in Gao on Saturday. Shops are now reopening and, according to one of our Observers, residents are covering up pro-Sharia slogans with French and Malian flags.
 
Since Saturday, the city’s residents could not be reached by phone. The network began working again on Tuesday, so we were able to contact some of our local Observers. However, Internet connectivity remains spotty.

“We had been living in hell”

Issouf Yacouba lives in Gao, where he volunteers for several organisations, including the Red Cross and “We Stay Here”, a secular organisation focused on raising awareness about civic responsibilities.
 
The flags of France and Mali, as well as those of Chad and Niger, are draped all over the city. People are extremely happy; we can’t thank France enough. Because truly, since March 31 of last year, we have been living in hell.
 
But everything isn’t back to normal just yet. The army has introduced a curfew that starts at 8:30 every evening. During the curfew, we have to stay at home, including during prayer. The army believes that some Islamic extremists could still be hiding in or around Gao, which could be particularly dangerous at night.
 
What matters now is for everyone in Mali to get along. I don’t ever want to hear of Azawad again [“Azawad” is the name given to the region of northern Mali by the Tuareg rebel group MNLA, which initially worked with the Islamists to take control of it]. The MNLA’s desire for independence caused it to invite the [armed Islamist extremist groups] MUJAO and Ansar Dine to northern Mali in the hopes that they would help them. We saw what that led to.
 

“A former Mujao member was spotted in the city. Some young men were ready to pounce on him”

Cheick Yahaya is a spokesperson for the “We Stay Here” organisation.
 
From what I’ve seen, the French army’s bombs didn’t cause much damage; they targeted MUJAO bases, in particular customs offices. When the troops arrived, people were euphoric. Since then, the city has been calm, and I’ve even been able to go shopping.

I do not fear the return of the Islamist extremists. But residents are concerned about the possible presence of former Mujao members, namely young men from Gao that were seduced into joining the MUJAO — often for money. Tuesday morning, a youth spotted a MUAJO member. A crowd formed around him very quickly, and some young men were ready to pounce, but overall the crowd remained calm and the tension simmered down after a while. The identified man was handed over to the Malian army. [In Kidal, in eastern Mali, Tuareg residents fear being targeted for reprisals by the Malian army].
 
That said, we must be careful not to be too zealous in the search for Mujao members. Gao residents must not suspect all Arabs or Tuaregs of being linked to the Islamist extremists. To this end, radio stations have been broadcasting messages of tolerance and neighborliness toward Tuaregs and Arabs. In my organisation, we have also been working to dissuade young men from going out with firearms, as this is useless and just adds to the general tension.
 

“Young men were looting Arab-owned stores”

Dramane lives in Gao.
 
Following the troops’ arrival, young men looted Arab-owned stores. These stores sold groceries and other important supplies, as well as cloth and rugs. But the Consultation Council, a well-respected institution that brings together local village chiefs, denounced the looting, which helped restore order.

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