A handful of Gao's residents stand guard outside the entrance to the city's historic Tomb of Askia.
After Islamist forces destroyed a number of historic mausoleums in the northern Malian city of Timbuktu, residents in the town of Gao have taken to standing guard outside their own religious monuments. Our Observer describes how life in Gao has changed since Islamists took control of the region, amid fears that the city’s historic and spiritual sites could be next to come under attack.
After nearly three months of a tense power-sharing arrangement, Islamist forces drove their former allies, Tuareg-led separatist group MNLA, out of Northern Mali’s main cities; Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal at the end of June. In the wake of the fighting, Islamists destroyed a number of historic mausoleums in Timbuktu, also called the "City of 333 Saints", sparking outrage on behalf of authorities in the capital Bamako and the international community. In addition to its status as one of UNESCO’s endangered world heritage sites, local tradition has it that Timbuktu is also protected by the very monuments the Islamists desecrated.
Upon news of the destroyed mausoleums in Timbuktu, a number of residents in Gao, stationed themselves outside of the city’s treasured Tomb of Askia, to ward off possible attacks.
Gao's historic Tomb of Askia. Photos courtesy of our Observer Amar Maiga.
Tensions have steadily grown in the area since the MNLA, Ansar Dine and several other radical groups seized the northern half of the country on March 31. In the months that followed, each group moved to take control of the region in a war of words that degenerated into an armed conflict. Ultimately, Islamist forces came out on top.

“For the most part, I feel as though life has continued as usual”

Amar Maiga works as a teacher in Gao. He photographed the men standing guard outside the tomb of Askia on Tuesday morning.
The men in the photo weren’t there two days ago. They decided to watch the tomb’s entrance after hearing that the mausoleums in Timbuktu had been destroyed. There’s also a group of youths that have become makeshift guards in front of the local mosque. They watch people as they come and go. But for the time being, the Islamists haven’t threatened to attack our monuments like they did in Timbuktu.
One of the Islamist leaders spoke on the radio on Monday. He said that they had placed mines all along MNLA’s transport routes through the bush. He urged the people of Gao to avoid travelling through these areas, and to use the main roads instead. Despite this, it’s still possible to get in and out of Gao. I was even able to send a package to Bamako on a bus Tuesday morning [the MNLA told French news agency AFP that Islamist groups were “preventing” Gao’s residents from leaving the city].
For the most part, I feel as though life has continued as usual. With that said, it’s becoming harder and harder to access salaries. Before the rebels came to Gao, I could go to the bank to withdraw money from my pay check. Now, all the banks are closed. I have to ask a friend in Bamako to withdraw the cash for me and send it on a bus.