Families flee Mali’s Tuareg-seized Gao in fear

Empty prison cells, fleeing residents and looted Red Cross warehouses: these are the images of life in Gao, one of north Mali’s cities seized by Tuareg and Islamist rebels two weeks ago.

In video obtained by Agence France-Presse (AFP) from before, during and after the seizure, Gao appears as a city riven by chaos since March 31, when Tuareg separatists and Islamist fighters routed the Malian army in what used to be its north base.

In previously unpublished videos, an army officer tells the camera before the attack he is determined to beat the advancing rebels — who took the city of Kidal the day before and would take Timbuktu the day after, consolidating their control over the country’s northern half.

“We’re going to fight with everything we have,” he says. “Together we can win. The enemy’s not invincible.”

The video shows one of the Malian army’s few helicopters flying overhead.

But it failed to stop the city falling to the rebels in a matter of hours.

‘God is greatest’
As shots ring out and black smoke pours from buildings, some residents flee while others loot stores, carrying away large sacks of rice and maize.

The camera then turns to a group of rebels, a motley crew carrying AK-47s and mostly clad in turbans.

Most of the group speaks Tamachek, the language of the local Tuaregs.

“Allah Akhbar,” yells one in Arabic — “God is greatest!”

Two speak Fulani, a language widespread across West Africa.

An AFP translator said the Fulani men’s accent was distinctly Nigerian. That appears consistent with reports from witnesses who have said some of the fighters in northern Mali are from Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group that has carried out a series of attacks in Nigeria.

‘Working towards heaven’
One of the Fulani men says he is “working towards heaven”.

“We’re not after the good life. Everything we’re doing today, we do for tomorrow,” says the other.

In another video, taken on April 7, local radio journalist Malick Maiga explores an empty prison, looted Red Cross store rooms, plundered banks and a ravaged hospital.

“People took everything. Today the city is in a very critical situation,” he says in front of the Red Cross building … Today is a day of desolation, of disappointment for the people, the region and the nation.”

Maiga has since been attacked by armed members of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), the Tuareg separatist group, he said.

“They took me by force to their camp. They hit me with weapons and threatened they’d kill me the next time,” he said.

“The MNLA rebels told me that I mustn’t speak badly of them and to say they are doing good work here in Gao.”

Other images, taken the evening of March 31, show dozens of people waiting at the bus station in front of a ticket counter marked “Gao-Bamako”.

They want to leave the city, but there is not enough space on the bus. Whole families set up camp there with their luggage to spend the night and wait for the next departure.

“I think it’s more than necessary to evacuate all the civilian families in Gao,” says one young traveller. “We’re under threat here.” — AFP

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