Exclusive report: The last Malian city to be freed from jihadists

All photos by Souleima Maiga and Abdul Malik Maiga.
 
Our Observer described scenes of joy in the northern Malian town of Bourem following the arrival of the Malian army and its allies. He explains that the military has asked residents to help them identify any terrorists still hidden in the city.
 
Soldiers from the Malian, French, and Nigerian forces arrived Saturday in Bourem. They travelled from the city of Gao, 80 km to the south.
 
Locals welcome military forces in Bourem.
 
“The army has been in complete control of Bourem since Saturday, (…) there wasn’t really any combat, more like some resistance” a Misma officer told Reuters (Misma is the West African force that was deployed in Mali). “Bourem was the bastion of Islamic radicals; all of Gao’s current problems came from Bourem”, he added.
 
In Gao, Islamic extremists fled without a battle when the coalition forces arrived on January 26. However, on February 9, they led a surprise attack against the Malian and French army in Gao’s city center. The previous days, they had managed to infiltrate the city and carry out two suicide attacks.
 
Foreign journalists interviewing the mayor of Bourem.
 
The French army launched its intervention in Mali on January 11. Approximately 4,000 French soldiers are working with 4,300 African soldiers. The three main cities in northern Mali, namely Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal, were recaptured by the French and Malian armies at the end of January.
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“We were surprised by the army’s arrival”

Baba Alassane works as a security guard at the local headquarters of ORTM (a Malian TV channel) in Bourem.
 
The residents of Bourem are immensely relieved. Masses of people came out on to the streets and waved Malian and French flags to celebrate the city’s liberation. There were many women and children.
 
I saw people cry openly, they were so happy. Our city’s population has lived in a state of anxiety for a long time, and we had been starting to give up hope. We were cut off from the world for nine months and nobody knew the military was coming to free us. It was a complete surprise.
 
Photos : Souleima Maiga et Abdul Malik Maiga.

Since January 21, the jihadists had been fleeing town and hiding out in nearby villages [Maza, Chabaria, Bamba, Temera, and Hawa, according to one of our Observers, Abdul Malik Maiga] because the French army had bombed a building in Bourem that the jihadists had been using. However, they sometimes came back to get food. No one could enter or leave Bourem; in fact, the terrorists had hidden mines on the road leading to Gao.
 
“The army asked us to help them identify terrorists”
 
Even though the city has been freed, we must remain vigilant because the terrorists did not hesitate to attack Gao several days ago despite the strong military presence there. The Malian army in fact has asked us to help them identify terrorists who might be trying to blend into the local population. We will of course help the army, but we must be careful not to lump people together as happened in other cities [Editor’s note: retributions against Arab and Tuareg populations were carried out in several liberated cities in northern Mali]. But I think that the jihadists, if they dared to venture out into the streets of Bourem, would be quite easy to recognise, since we lived with them for nine months.
 
Foreign journalists interviewing Bourem residents.

Today, I will be attending a citizen’s meeting with army officers who will instruct us on finding the jihadists and advise us on security issues. The meeting will also cover city management issues, because we need to get the city administration and the schools up and running again.
 
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