GAO, Mali (AFP) – After routing an Islamist insurgency in Mali early this year, France is making sure it also “wins the peace” in the west African state — and the central market in the eastern city of Gao is acting as a symbol of that strategy.
The once-bustling sprawl of vendors’ covered stalls and stands on the banks of the Niger River was all but consumed by fire on February 21, when flames spread from sheds in the courtyard of the nearby town hall being used as cover by an infiltrating Islamist militia.
The scene of traders running screaming from the inferno, and the blackened ruin of their livelihoods scarred the heart of the city.
But now, after a mere three weeks of intensive reconstruction — and 77,000 euros (100,000 dollars) in French funds directly authorised by military chiefs in Paris — the market is being revived.
The floor has been re-laid and many traders have reopened for business.
“We are doing this to help life get back to normal. These are the two sides of our profession: to know how to win the peace, to cut all links that might exist between the enemy and the population,” said Colonel Bruno Bert, the French officer who commands the tactical battle group in Gao.
He looked around. “A few weeks ago, my men were fighting just a few metres (yards) from here,” he said.
Gao and the rest of the northern desert area comprising about 60 percent of Mali fell to ethnic Tuareg rebels a year ago.
But they lost control to Al Qaeda-linked radicals who imposed a brutal version of Islamic law, carrying out amputations and executions.
Mali’s former colonial ruler France in January sent in troops and took back the cities of the north.
With French and African soldiers in a battle to flush out the remaining armed Islamists holed up in the region’s vast desert and northeastern mountains, the residents of Gao are under constant threat of reprisals.
Ushering in a return to normal life is seen by France — Mali’s former colonial ruler — as an important way to prevent the Islamists regaining any support.
“It is important to show people that things are moving in the right direction, despite the terrorist incidents which continue from time to time,” said the French officer in charge of the region’s civilian-military cooperation, who identified himself only as Lieutenant Colonel Aldo.
“There are at least 500 traders who will soon resume work. This is a vital part of the infrastructure of the city and the region.”
The walls of the market, unlike those of the neighbouring town hall, police station and courthouse, managed to avoid damage during February’s clashes but the wooden false ceiling was destroyed.
The metal roof above was untouched, however, allowing rapid rehabilitation.
Around 50 men, including 10 young unemployed Gao residents, hired for the refurbishment were proud to show off the progress they had made to French and Malian officials gathered at the market this week.
“We started on March 25. We were given 45 days but I think we’ll have finished within three weeks,” one said.
“Only France could have helped us fund such a project, and fund it so quickly. It’s vital for Gao and for the entire region,” said site manager Youssouf Maiga.
Amadou Al Assam Maiga, vice-president of the Association of Greengrocers, remembered the anguish of being trapped for hours along with hundreds of others between the flames, the crossfire and the river.
“We are unemployed, we living on our savings or credit from traders,” he said, visibly encouraged by the masons around him mixing cement to paste on walls and ceiling.
“We have to see them every day to congratulate them, thank them and encourage them to finish as soon as possible.”