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For French troops nearing rebel ground, Mali fight is no ordinary mission

On the road in central Mali: French soldiers say they are ‘doing their duty,’ while watching soccer and eating cassoulet. But they know Islamist fighters have advantage with terrain.

French Army columns, scores of vehicles, and hundreds of soldiers rumbled north into centralMali today, down dirt roads and among the grass and acacia trees, heading toward the rebel’s main stronghold. 

“I don’t know where we’ll end up,” says a soldier named Flavien, leaning against the barrel of the tank he drives during a pause on the road. “If tomorrow I’m told that Timbuktu must be taken by force of arms, I’ll do it.”

It’s unclear even to most men in the column where they are ultimately bound. What is clear is that days after reversing an offensive by Islamist militants, large contingents of French troops are now pushing toward Islamist redoubts in Mali’s north.

The French advance appears to be part of wider efforts to bring pressure on the militants. Soldiers from several West African countries have arrived in Mali in recent days, with more expected soon, while yesterday French planes struck Islamist positions near the northern city of Gao.

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Taking back the north could prove arduous. While air-strikes and troop advances could push Islamist fighters from major cities, many have years of experience eluding capture in the northern deserts and are plugged into the region’s criminal networks.

How the crisis began

Mali’s crisis began a year ago when Islamists hijacked a tribal revolt by Tuareg, a large ethnic group, and seized much of the north country.

After months of stalemate, French troops rushed here two weeks ago. The move came after a succession of lightning territorial victories by Islamist fighters who were pushing south and that put the capital, Bamako, at risk, and prompted a distress call from Malian President Dioncoundé Traoré, French officials say.

Plans drawn up last year for foreign intervention in Mali had originally given ground fighting roles mainly to African troops; France says it still hopes to hand off to regional powers as soon as possible.

But so far, the urgency of the fight has seen France take a leading combat role. French planes have pummeled Islamists with air-strikes, and French troops were instrumental in pushing back Islamists from the central towns of Konna and Diabaly.

In terms of aspiration

Last night several hundred French soldiers rolled in convoys into Niono, a regional center in the flat country of canals and rice patties south of Diabaly, as locals from the town turned out to welcome them.

“I wish I could show my son this!” said medical student Yacouba Cissé, as the line of troop, trucks, and armored cars streamed down Niono’s main avenue, headlines blazing between lines of tall trees known as balanzan in the local Bambara tongue. The convoy next turns onto a parade ground.

In fact, Mr. Cissé is neither yet married nor a father. But he’s talking in terms of aspirations. For him, French military might hold his best hope for a better future. Crisis has forced many foreign aid donors from Mali, narrowing his chances of finding a backer for the chain of neighborhood pharmacies he dreams of opening.

No ordinary mission

As night fell over Niono, the French bedded down. They lay their gear outside their vehicles to grab at a moment’s notice, and some began heating French Army rations – vittles like canard parmentier, cassoulet, and tagine are available – on locally-bought butane stoves.

Many soldiers here talk stoically of doing their duty. But this is no ordinary mission. Mali’s crisis, coupled with a deadly hostage taking last week in Algeria, has shifted world attention to Islamist militancy in North Africa and prompted Western leaders to call for a broad effort to clean up the region.

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For some soldiers, it’s also a chance for excitement, says Morgan, a staff sergeant with the second Marines, a rapid response unit based in the French city of Le Mans. He gave only his first name in accordance with French Army regulations.

“The men’s morale is very high,” he says. “Many are young and have only been with us for two years or so. The reason people join our regiment is to go abroad.”

Later last night, several French soldiers went to the bar and restaurant of Niono’s main hotel and settled down to watch an Africa Cup soccer match between the Malian and Ghanaian teams. At the back of the room sat a Malian Army corporal, Boubacar Traoré.

Like Cissé, he is glad to see the French troops. He was among Malian soldiers forced to flee the north last year, he says, suffering lack of food and ammunition as Islamist fighters struck. And like Cissé, he thinks of the future.

“I have three children,” he says. “My oldest is 10. She’s named Natouma, after her mother. Often she tells me she wants to be a police woman because she sees me in my uniform.” 

Early this morning French forces left both from the towns of Niono and Diabaly, heading north. The columns followed a canal. There were tanks, armored cars, supply cars, and troop-laden trucks. Later the canal turned out from the road but the column pressed on, leaving the green countryside for a scrubby empty one.

There were repeated stops. Several vehicles got stuck in sand and had to be rescued. In mid-afternoon the column passed through an isolated village – several low buildings, a small white mosque, and crowds of children cheering, “Franci! Mali! Franci! Mali!”

“We joined up to do our jobs,” says Flavien, the tank driver, who joined the Army two years ago. His unit, based in Ivory Coast, is designed for quick deployment.

“If someone calls to us for help, that’s what we’re trained for,” he says. “It’s the heart of our profession.”