By Joe Penney
Since French troops first arrived in Mali on January 11, 2013, I have spent all but one week of 2013 covering the conflict there. The first three weeks were probably the most intense I have ever worked in my life, and at times, the most frustrating. French troops hit the ground at a pace which far outstripped most journalists’ ability to cover events, and media restrictions forced journalists to focus on something other than fighting.
Many other journalists have lamented the stringent media restrictions, which at a certain point meant that when the French and Malian took control of Gao, most of the journalists were blocked at a Malian army checkpoint in Sevare, more than 600km (370 miles) southwest. But after the initial push resulting in the seizure of nearly all of Mali’s territory, the jihadist groups opted for a more insurgent-like approach, targeting the Malian army with suicide bombs and surprise attacks in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.
It is clear that this war is not like many others. After a month of complaining that we were not given access to the frontline, on one of the first few days I arrived in Gao, the frontline came to us. We had heard lots of gunfire throughout the night and then in the morning, Malian and French forces engaged in a day-long street battle with jihadists who had taken control of several key administrative buildings downtown. The attack on Gao and other attacks, like Thursday’s in Timbuktu, show that the danger in this war is that it can erupt at any time, in any place.
I’ve covered Mali since last year’s coup d’etat, and have watched the country unravel from what Western observers had called “a stable democracy” to a country cut in half, occupied by jihadist rebels, to the French military intervention that has restored most of the landlocked nation’s territory.
While I am grateful to have witnessed up close and in fine detail such an important time in Mali’s history, my sentiments are tempered by a knowledge that the war is far from over. While French, Chadian and Malian forces have swiftly won back a vast territory, Mali’s many political, military, economic and humanitarian problems will not go away tomorrow.