Between fear and disappointment
n the searing heat, young people gather in a backyard in the centre of the northern Malian town of Gao. A small television set on mute is airing a Brazilian soap-opera. Some of the youth have their eyes on the screen. Others nap in the afternoon heat. One of them is Issa Boncana. He is a member of the Civilian Resistance Movement, formed in the middle of the crisis in 2012. He tells how, back then, rather than fleeing the region, its members tried to help the population and resisted the bandits with peaceful means.
Yet now these young adults have nothing to do anymore: "There are no factories. Nobody can find any work," Boncana said, pointing to his friends. The man in the red t-shirt still hoped that his government would be able to start a few projects to create jobs. But he was very sceptical.
International military presence
Even before the crisis in northern Mali, which was began with a revolt of the Tuareg at the end of 2011 and culminated in the occupation by fundamental Islamist groups, tourism in the area had broken down. It was the most important source of revenue for the people in Gao.
In 2013, the French launched Operation Serval, which managed to push back the jihadists. Today, a couple of thousands of soldiers tasked with keeping security are stationed on the periphery of Gao. Germany alone has 727 soldiers on site, integrated in the United Nations′ peace keeping mission MINUSMA (the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali – ed.). The French are present with Mission Barkhane, the successor to Operation Serval. The Malian army and the so-called MOC, an alliance of regular Malian soldiers, pro-Malian militias and former rebels, also have camps on the town′s outskirts.
In the afternoon heat, with the dusty roads nearly deserted, a couple of heavily armed soldiers stood around in the center of Gao. There were regular patrols too.
"We cannot move around freely"
Nevertheless, the situation remains tense, said Moussa Souma Maiga, the traditional leader of the Songhai in Gao. "Security just isn′t working here. We cannot move around freely."
The streets beyond the city centre are not sufficiently secured and have no military posts. They are used as shortcuts by smugglers and bandits. Rumours circulate that jihadists are still in Gao. It′s a sensitive subject, said Souma Maiga. "Yes, there are jihadists still here. Recently they attacked the MOC," he added.
Maiga was referring to a serious attack in January that left 70 soldiers dead. Two months later, the attack keeps cropping up in conversations and has not been forgotten yet. Since then, the protection of entrance to the MOC base has been improved. But attempted attacks keep on occurring.
Mali′s difficult peace process
The situation is having an impact on the peace process. In May 2015, the Malian government signed a peace agreement with several Tuareg rebel groups, which is now being gradually implemented. The next step in the accord was the national unity conference held at the weekend in Bamako that was expected to bring together 300 participants. But the opposition and several former rebel groups announced on Saturday that they would not be attending the peace, national unity and reconciliation conference. Their complaint: the gathering was not inclusive enough. Until the last minute, the government was scrambling to convince the Co-ordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) to attend. In the backyard in Gao, talk of the conference caused Issa Boncana to grimace ironically. "Neither us nor other youth groups have been contacted, let alone invited," he said.
The fact reinforced the perception Boncana shares with many Malians: Bamako is not really interested in the north. "Is this the unity of Bamako?" Boncana asked sarcastically. The conference also proved that only those who made a lot of noise with weapons were being listened to, while quiet and peaceful movements were being ignored, he added. In his opinion, pacifist groups should be included in a significant way in the current peace process, since this was not just about how the crisis should be handled, but relevant to the future of the whole country.
Concerning the conference, tribal leader Moussa Souma Maiga was more optimistic. He said that it was evident that all sides should be sensitive and ready to compromise. "You have to understand that it would be easy to destroy this fragile situation, yet extremely difficult to re-build it," Maiga said.
Maiga added that he didn′t know whether by the end of the conference his town would be getting any kind of concrete assistance. Like many other Gao inhabitants, he remains sceptical. Mali′s north and its problems have always been far away from the government in Bamako, he said.
© Deutsche Welle 2017