28 Jan 2013

Gao reclaims the freedoms it lost under jihadi rule

Everywhere we go in Gao, people cheer and clap. They haven’t seen white people in a long time. In fact, the women haven’t seen very much for a long time because the jihadis would not let them wear glasses.

Hamchat Dicko, who has only one eye, told me that she was not allowed to buy a replacement pair. “They didn’t want women to see the world,” she said.

She was among a group of women who pulled us into their sandy compound to chat. Her friend, Malama al-Zouma, a tiny woman in a yellow skirt and blouse, insisted on showing me all her favourite dresses that she had hidden in a pillowcase from the jihadis. Then she proudly put on a blue uniform and badge, which she used to wear in her job as an orderly at the hospital.

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All around Gao we can see the damage the jihadis have wrought. They fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Baji nightclub, which is now full of rubble. One of their first acts was to climb the earthen turret of the Catholic cathedral and destroy the cross.

In the courtyard we met teenagers who were Muslim but had attended the Catholic school, one of the best educational establishments in Gao. The priests and teachers had fled last April. They were praying that the foreigners would come back so they could get their education again.

All over town, people are telling me that the jihadis were not good Muslims. In one street a Malian lieutenant colonel showed us a bomb-making factory still littered with explosive powder and old oil drums with fuses.

A man who lived down the road told me that the Arab men had come in their pick-ups a month ago. “We knew something as going on in that house,” he said, “but we didn’t know what.”

Now I’m watching two young women drive by on a motor bike with a baby. They’ve got a Malian flag at the front, and they’ve pinned ribbons in the Malian green, red and yellow and the French red, white and blue, all over their head dresses.

They’re enjoying the freedom to dress as they please, ride on a motor bike to see their friends, and wear glasses to see the world.

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