Ground Zero: Mali
Back in February, the only way to reach the city of Gao in northern Mali was to hitch a ride with the French convoys that rolled through the desert every few days. Along the way, a VICE production crew made friends with some French soldiers and chatted with them about what they thought about this grueling campaign as well as the greatest threat they face: homemade bombs, aka IEDs.
Watch the video
Al Qaeda Wants Africa – Are the French in Over Their Heads in Mali?
This February, after a victorious battle against Islamic insurgents in the Saharan city of Gao, the Malian army put on a tour for the assembled press. Journalists from various news outlets from around the world stood in a dusty courtyard in the heart of the city. Gao is a conservative town—the sort of place where six-month-old babies wear hijabs—and since last year, it has played host to some of the fiercest battles in an international conflict that could reach far beyond Mali’s 15 million people: the fight to prevent al Qaeda from flourishing in Africa.
The press tour was supposed to be a victory celebration. French soldiers, who had offered military support to the Malian troops in the recent battle, stood silently at the edge of Gao’s central courtyard and watched with amusement as the Malians led reporters around the battlefield. Gendarmes swathed in ammo belts guided the journalists around the town’s courthouse, pointing out dismembered limbs and dead jihadists crumpled on the ground.
One soldier called our attention to a severed head facedown in the dust. “Is it Malian, do you think?” I asked. The gendarme kicked it over and studied the face. Dark blood dripped from its mouth. A fly crawled up its nose. “Nah, maybe Algerian or Nigerien,” the gendarme said, grinning with pride. Nearby, in the town hall, next to a body hunched in a stairwell over its machine gun, the soldiers pointed out a wide streak of blood that had burst up the wall and across the ceiling. “Suicide bomber,” they said. “Look, here’s his head.” It was more of a face than a head, though, a puzzled countenance lying wrinkled on the floor in a dusty frown, its skull sheared off by the blast. The cameramen pointedly avoided filming it. “You’d never get it on TV,” one reporter later said, “so why even bother?”
Ground Zero – Mali, Part 1
Ground Zero - Mali was shot in Gao, Mali, on February 21, 2013. It’s basically the first legitimate combat footage to come out of the war there. Normally the French ban journalists from the front lines and film a sanitized version of the fighting themselves and then distribute it to the media.
In this case, the insurgents came to us: They slipped into Gao overnight on small boats and used suicide bombers to blast their way into government buildings. The French left the fighting to the Malian army for most of the day as a test of their combat abilities. Malian soldiers, while very brave, are almost completely untrained and had great difficulty fighting less than a dozen jihadists, some of whom were children. They fired wild bursts of automatic fire everywhere, destroying the city center. The Malians soon ran out of ammunition and had to wait for the French to show up and save the day.
Watch it here
What Are the French Really Up to in Mali?
When it comes to going to war, it’s not too often we get to see France beat the US to the punch. But in the case of Mali, the troubled north African country with a serious jihadi problem, the French are playing the usual American role of global terrorist-hunter, launching a string of airstrikes and deploying 2,500 troops to its former colony in what could end up being a long and dirty war, à la Afghanistan. Since its unwillingness to support the war in Iraq in 2003 (which launched a mindless jingoistic shit-storm in the States), the French track record of interventionism has actually been more belligerent than widely held American perceptions would have it.
Besides leading the NATO charge in Libya against Gaddafi in 2011, leading up to the Malian campaign, France actually sent troops to two different countries within a month. In December, soldiers were deployed to the Central African Republic and then, in early January, a helicopter commando mission in Somalia failed to free a French hostage. They also maintain the largest and readiest Western military presence on the continent, with permanently stationed troops in countries like Chad and Gabon. Not to mention the rich history of corrupt African dictators being propped up by French political leaders in exchange for syphoning natural resources.
When it comes to Africa, since the wave of independence movements directly following WWII, the French secretly considered the continent its colonial playground, even without the title of imperial overlord. In fact, there’s evidence of all sorts of sinister stuff, like alleged connections between Hutu militiamen in Rwanda and French military officials before the 1994 genocide.
World Peace Update
Compared to last week’s French air strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali, this week—world violence-wise—has been a bit of a wash out. If it weren’t for some pissed off Egyptians, Turks, and the never-ending slaughter in Syria, I’d be so bored I’d have probably paid some attention to Obama’s inauguration. Then again, when I think about Obama, I think about drone wars. So that’s always a plus, I guess.