In the huge hangar where the soldiers meet regularly over a coffee to decompress, the images of Emmanuel Macron announcing the end of the French military operation in Mali were looping on Thursday on television screens. “What would have happened in 2013 if France had not chosen to intervene? You would have had, for sure, a collapse of the Malian State”, estimated the French President, while confirming the definitive departure of the French troops from Mali, by June. According to a Mediapart investigation, 2,800 suspected jihadists were put out of action by French forces. But the terrorist threat has spread to neighboring countries, notably Burkina Faso.
“Proud of the work accomplished in Mali”
At the base of Gao, in the east of Mali, it is not the atmosphere of the great days. After the final withdrawal of the 2,400 Barkhane soldiers currently spread throughout Mali, some of them will leave the “Sahelian adventure”, while others will be redeployed in the region, mainly in Niger, which should host the bulk of French and European troops from Barkhane and Task Force Takuba.
“We are proud of the work accomplished in Mali against jihadist groups. We are also thinking of our 53 brothers in arms who have fallen on the field of honour,” an annoyed officer confided anonymously. Last January, Brigadier Alexandre Martin was the last French soldier killed in a terrorist mortar attack in the same Gao military camp.
A city within the city
Today, the base, with its multiple barracks and armored vehicles, perfectly aligned, is a gigantic anthill of more than 50,000 square meters, the dismantling of which promises to be long and difficult.
In 2013, when the French commandos and legionnaires of Operation Serval landed there, the airfield area was a vast field of ruins, where the few buildings still standing bore witness to the fierce fighting against the jihadists. Since then, a small airport has been inaugurated, and the ballet of combat helicopters and planes punctuates the lives of soldiers.
In nine years of French presence, the Gao base has taken on the air of a city within the city, with its shops of all kinds, its grocery stores, its hairdressing salons… “Business is even more flourishing there than in the city of Gao,” says Ahmed, a Malian craftsman.
Employed on the base as kitchen assistants or maintenance workers, nearly a hundred Malians work on site every day. “It will be a great loss of earnings for thousands of inhabitants of Gao, confides a soldier. I have never come across a single Malian hostile to our action on the ground. Neither in Gao nor during our operations in the north and east of the country. »
“What sauce are we going to be eaten? »
That day, however, on Radio France Internationale, a voice vociferates against France. “We are against French policy in West Africa,” Abdoulaye gets angry, without giving further explanation.
Strangely, anti-French sentiment in the Sahel – very strong in Bamako and some neighboring capitals – seems to have gone hand in hand with the arrival on Malian soil of 500 mercenaries from the Russian private military company Wagner at the end of 2021. For many observers, if it is not necessarily created by Russia, it is used and instrumentalized by Moscow.
A former teacher and translator, Abdul assures us that this feeling, “we don’t know it in Gao”. He regrets the end of Operation Barkhane: “I’m not happy. How are we going to be eaten now? For me, we have a duty of gratitude towards the French soldiers. I was there when they arrived; they were liberators. And to see the conditions in which they are hunted, it tears my heart. »
The communication war
He wonders: “Why aren’t the French media interested in us, in Gao? It is true that one of the few French journalists to have ventured a little further than the city of Mopti without military protection, Olivier Dubois, correspondent for Le Point and Liberation, is still today hostage to jihadists affiliated with Al-Qaeda. In 2013, two RFI reporters were also murdered, not far from Kidal, in the northeast of the country.
Allasane, carrier in Gao, shares the general concern, faced with the departure of the French. “France should have negotiated with the Malian president, Assimi Goïta. We want Barkhane to stay. There is still fear of a partition between the North and the South. The future is very uncertain. »
Uncertain ? Not for everybody. Secretly, talks have already begun between the military junta in place in Bamako and certain jihadist leaders, such as Iyad Ag Ghali, a former Tuareg rebel wanted by France. In Bamako, the famous Salafist imam Mahmoud Dicko, trained in Saudi Arabia, now receives special envoys from the French media with open arms. A French diplomat summarizes: “In Mali, we first lost the communication war. »
letelegramme Fr Trans