The ongoing volatility in the region has left citizens terrified after a year under jihadist rule.
Sitting in front of her house on a quiet street in Gao, Bintou Yatarra (28) pokes a feathered bird into a pot of hot water. Beside it, two small fowl have been skinned, their wings and feet neatly tied together with string.
Yatarra, who is heavily pregnant, wears a white T-shirt that stretches over her belly and a red cloth wrapped around her waist. She is preparing for Tabaski – the local name for Eid al-Adha.
But Yatarra says she is not in the mood for celebrating. Only a metre away from where she is sitting, a crater – now filling up with litter – marks the spot where a rocket landed last week. One person was injured and Yatarra was taken to hospital suffering from shock. The walls of her house are now scarred with jagged gashes; inside there is a hole in the ceiling.
Gao spent almost a year under jihadist rule during Mali's recent civil war, when first Tuareg rebels, then ultra-conservative Muslim militants took over parts of the north. A French-led African and Malian military intervention in January liberated the region, but a spate of recent attacks has shown that the conflict is far from over.
"We are still scared," says Yatarra. "We sit outside because we are too afraid to sit indoors, and when we do, we don't want to close the door in case it makes it harder to get out."
Gao's latest rocket attack, believed to have been launched from 16km outside the town, came as clashes continued in the far northern region of Kidal – a stronghold of Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Last month, Timbuktu was also hit by the latest in a series of suicide bomb blasts.
The United Nations envoy to Mali last week said that the recent terror had highlighted the ongoing volatility in the region. Albert Koenders, head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali, told the UN Security Council that the renewed violence was a wake-up call to the international community. He called for more troops and equipment to support the UN peacekeeping force, known as Minusma.
At a hotel in central Gao, which has been turned into a makeshift command centre by the army, Major Colonel Abdoulaye Coulibaly – in charge of northern operations – says the terrorist groups from across the African continent are far from defeated.
"There is still insecurity, and it will take time to root it out," he says. "We have jihadists from Sudan, we have Boko Haram, we have al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, we have the Mujao [Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa] … all these groups are here, they have sleeper cells here and there.
"We need to find these cells and dismantle or destroy them. It's not only in Gao; it's spread over the whole country. This is a whole endeavour that doesn't take only one year. It's a long-term task."
The military's major concern now is the infiltration of urban areas by jihadist groups that are collaborating with those integrated back into the civilian population in order to launch attacks.
"My greatest worry is to clean this band of jihadists from the desert, and those within the towns whom they control," says Coulibaly. "If you take the example of the suicide bombings in Timbuktu, or the rockets that fell in Gao recently, this could not have happened without the complicity of those inside and around Gao.
"The welder who manufactured the platform for launching the rockets from the desert, or the truck driver who delivered it, these people are inside the towns, they are among us. And somebody is their brother, or son, or mother – we need those people to work with us."
Fears about both security in the desert and the infiltration of towns is also affecting humanitarian work. Aid agencies struggle to reach communities in a region that was already one of the world's poorest, and that are now under pressure from internal displacement and shortages of food.
"Insecurity is still critical in some areas, especially the areas bordering Kidal and Menaka," says a senior humanitarian source, who did not want to be named. "Even local organisations cannot get access there.
"We are receiving information about the infiltration of jihadists in Gao – we believe that people who are recognised as active members of the militant groups are coming back and planning attacks."
The need to root out jihadist conspirators from within civilian populations sits uneasily with the need for reconciliation, espoused by Mali's newly elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who is expected to reopen negotiations with some rebel groups in the next few weeks.
Under the terms of a peace agreement signed in neighbouring Burkina Faso – so far only partially upheld – the deadline for talks expires in November. Earlier this month, 23 MNLA prisoners were freed in an effort to foster reconciliation.
But frustration about the perceived ease with which people who joined the rebel groups are able to come back into the town has sparked protests in Gao, where earlier this week large areas were deserted and markets closed as residents marched to demand more action.
"We don't want the MNLA members who were arrested by the government forces to be released," says Moussa Boureima Yoro, one of the protesters. "And we demand to be represented at all levels of the negotiations with the rebels."
MNLA rebels – whose goal is ostensibly the creation of a secular state of Azawad in the Sahara – and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists, who seek to impose sharia law, joined forces during the occupation, and many believe that the lines between the various factions are either blurred or nonexistent.
A report by Oxfam earlier this month found that community relations in northern Mali remain severely affected by the conflict, characterised by "restricted interactions and … feelings of fear and mistrust".
"We have known about wahhabists [followers of an ultraconservative form of Islam] in Bamako and Gao for 25 years – they have created schools … and during the occupation they recruited disciples," says Sadou Harouna Diallo, mayor of Gao.
"These disciples are still here. They live among us. And every day our lives are in danger. I have cousins who have worked for the Mujao. And they still work for the Mujao until now. And if they lay their hands on me in the village they will kill me."
At one end of Gao's Independence Square, a group of tall, lean youths are dribbling basketballs in the relative cool of the desert dusk. All wear shorts and vests.
They are playing metres away from the site where, only a year ago, religious extremists who controlled this part of northern Mali carried out amputations and lashings for what they said were breaches of sharia law.
"What they did right here was unbelievable, it was terrifying," says 11-year-old Konesse as she stands in line to shoot hoops, wearing a matching dark-blue and lime-green vest and knee-length shorts, with the words "Real Madrid" running down one pants' leg. "During the occupation, boys could still play sport, but we girls couldn't."
Konesse speaks of one 15-year-old girl who she says was arrested, drugged and raped by religious fundamentalists when she went to the market alone. She has since fled to Bamako, where she remains too scared to return to her home town.
Since the militants fled in January, girls such as Konesse have been able to return to the freedom to which they are accustomed. But Konesse says she cannot support forgiveness or negotiation with any of those who turned her life, and the lives of her family and neighbours, upside down.
"They ruined our town, they raped our sisters, destroyed our houses and beat our mothers," she says. "We will never let them come back." – © Guardian News & Media 2013