On the banks of the River Niger, mud-walled buildings festooned with tricolours mark out the ancient trading post of Gao, Mali’s largest northern city where the French have been welcomed as heroes.
It is barely two months since Mali’s former colonial power sent troops in to take back its cities from Islamists who had seized power in a devastating push which saw them gain control of the war-torn west African country’s entire north.
But with Gao handed back to its citizens, there is a new disquiet in the reopened bars and market places after France announced it would begin withdrawing in April to hand responsibility for security back to Malian troops.
“If the French leave, we will leave with them. We do not have an army that can protect us,” said Issiaka Toure at the bus station in the former “Shariah Square”, returned to its former designation as “Independence Square” after the Islamists were driven out.
Toure voiced the fear of many Gao residents, that once the French troops go they will be exposed, helpless to repel resurgent jihadist fighters who will return with bloody reprisals in mind.
“They will take vengeance and slaughter us,” he said.
Gao fell on March 31 last year, one day after the capture of the northern town of Kidal.
Malian troops had retreated from the city, allowing it to be occupied by ethnic Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine.
The MNLA declared a region comprising about 60% of Mali’s total land area independent of Bamako and named it the nation of Azawad, with Gao as its capital.
But they lost control to Islamist fighters in June before the city was recaptured by French military forces in January this year.
The day after the liberation of Gao, designer Bassirou Diarra painted a memorial in the city centre for Damien Boiteux, the first French soldier killed during Operation Serval. “We shouted for help and the Malian army didn’t come, so do not leave us,” he pleaded. Many in Gao feel the same sense that only the French can keep them safe. Diarra’s friend Alassane described the city’s people as having been “betrayed by the army and the Malian government”.
French and Chadian troops engaged in AFISMA, the African mission of more than 6,000 soldiers, continue to battle Islamists entrenched in the northeastern Ifoghas mountains and in the desert around Gao.
But for Paris the largest phase of the engagement is over and President Francois Hollande has announced that his troops will begin to head home in April, passing the baton to a UN force.
On Malian television, a woman from the fabled northern desert city of Timbuktu is shown breaking down, tears streaming down her face, as she hears news of the withdrawal.
“This announcement has everyone worried,” the head of an international charity in Gao said.
“The public here has confidence in the French—professionals who are better equipped,” he said.
Ironically, there are noticeably more Malian troops than French in the streets of Gao but, sipping tea in plastic chairs, sometimes wearing sandals, they hardly inspire confidence that they are an elite fighting force.
In February, it took the intervention of the French military to return calm to the streets of Gao after the first suicide bombing since the start of the campaign and a jihadist raid raised fears of a new nightmare for residents.
In Bamako, French general Francois Lecointre, commander of the European Union mission to train more than 2,500 Malian soldiers, spoke of the need for an “overhaul” of the Malian army.
The Malian army’s number two in Gao was more philosophical.
“The French came to help us. If they want to go, what can you do?” said Lieutenant Colonel Nema Segara.
“We want them to stay but if they leave we will take things in hand. You cannot force them to stay forever,” she said.
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