26 Jan 2013

Mali: how will the city of Gao welcome the French?

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We are on the road heading north east to Gao which has been in Islamist hands for nine months. When we stopped at the village for BorĂ© people clustered around the Malian army vehicle shouting “Vive la France”.

I keep telling people that I’m British but they don’t seem to care – they just say “thank you, thank you”.

One man in Boré said to me that they had lived in fear of the jihadists who had occupied the town. We drove on through the desert scrub landscape, huge stone cliffs rising to our left and thorn trees littering the flat lands to our right.

This is a barren area where goats and camels are the only livestock who can easily survive the dry months. At Douentza I got chatting to the local school teacher. A pretty woman in a blue dress and matching head scarf sitting on her motorbike.

“The jihadists were here for six months,” she said. “They forced us to wear veils or stay inside. They beat people for smoking. I had to close the school. They hate everything nice like music and photographs. They even tried to take our mobile phones.”

Most of the people I’ve seen cheering the Malian forces are black. The jihadists are mainly made of Arabs – some Malian, some foreign – and Tuareg. The question will be whether those Malians welcome the French and the Malian armed forces with the same enthusiasm?

The Malian army is known for committing human rights abuses, especially against the lighter skinned Tuareg and Arabs.

We hope to be in Gao later today to witness how the French in Mali are greeted in the first major city to fall to them in this war.

Follow Lindsey Hilsum on Twitter: @lindseyhilsum


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