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AFP photographer Philippe Desmazes recently completed an assignment embedded with the French army in remote northern Mali, where a war against Islamist insurgents continues. His visit to the desert coincided with the deaths of two colleagues from Radio France Internationale, who were killed in Kidal.
A French troop participates in Operation Hydra in the north of Mali, patrolling near a the village of Bamba. October 30, 2103. (AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes)
By Philippe Desmazes
Twice last month, missiles pounded Gao, a key town in northern Mali where thousands of French and African troops are stationed. They were self-propelled, Russian-made rockets with a range of about 20 kilometres. It’s a worrying sign that armed Islamists, routed by the French army last winter, remain active in the area and are growing bolder.
The Islamist militants had hidden their rockets, about four metres long, in holes they’d dug in the sand. When the time came, they’d uncover them, put them on ramps and fire them remotely by using mobile phones as triggers. A Malian soldier was fatally wounded October 7 and the rocket strikes were getting more accurate. The day after I went through Gao, one hit the runway at the airport.
A Puma helicopter from the French army flies across the Mali desert near the village of Bourem. November 1, 2013. (AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes)
In response, French troops, Malians and fighters with the UN’s mission to the country launched “Operation Hydra” at the end of October. The goal was to reassert the military’s presence across these vast desert zones in the north of the country, which until now had only seen brief appearances from small special forces units.
Troops searched for arms caches and supplies, gathered intel from residents and basically tried ensure the Islamists didn’t feel safe in this isolated area. About 1,500 troops, including about 1,000 French, were involved in the operation, supported by helicopters and drones.
For four days, I followed the men of the third marine infantry regiment, in an area filled with water wells where nomads -- and rebel fighters -- come to stock up on water before heading farther south into the desert.
I arrived by helicopter at a French army camp in the middle of nowhere, near a village called Bamba about 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Gao. It was a true tent city, extremely well organised, that had sprung up overnight and was sheltering about 1,000 soldiers. Every day, the troops would spread out across about 100 kilometres and check the wells, speak to nomads and look for rebels.
French soldiers and a Malian interpreter at a nomad camp in the desert. October 30, 2013. (AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes)
It’s a hard task. We were there in the autumn but temperatures nonetheless hit 40 degrees Celsius for much of the day. Hot enough to make wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest tough indeed.
The terrain was challenging too. An unending flat expanse, without trees and with just a few dried-out shrubs for vegetation. There were swarms of insects, and the dust got everywhere.
Logistics are complex. Each troop needs to be supplied with more than 10 litres of water per day and the military vehicles, which are key to every patrol and supply line, break down frequently thanks to the ubiquitous dust and the rutted roads.
A French army convoy leaves at sunrise from a base in the middle of the Malian desert. November 2, 2013. (AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes)
Days go by. The enemy remains invisible. The troops I’m with are welcoming and talkative, but I get the feeling they are a little disappointed by the lack of action. On the last day, on the way back to Gao, we finally spot a physical trace of the rebels: A long ditch where the enemy had hidden one of its rockets, and some hardened ground where it was launched.
French soldiers inspect a hole where a rocket had been hidden by Islamists who attacked Gao. November 2, 2013. (AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes)
It’s during this trip that I learned of the release of four French hostages who’d been kidnapped in the Sahel region in 2010. Soon after, I hear of the killing of two Radio France Internationale journalists who were slain in the Kidal region of Mali.
On Sunday, November 3, I must go back to Bamako on a transport aircraft. When I arrive at the airport, I see two armoured vehicles carrying the journalists’ bodies. There is a brief ceremony in their honour, which I do not photograph out of respect for the victims’ families. I take off towards the Malian capital in the same plane as the coffins, which are hidden behind a curtain. It so happens the coffins are also on the same flight as me back to Paris.
The Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita pays his respects by the coffins of French journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon at the airport in Bamako. November 4, 2013. (AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes)
I didn’t know the two journalists -- Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon -- but as I am on this rather morbid flight, I think about the ways war reporting has changed in recent years. In a conflict like Mali’s, journalists have increasingly become targets as armed groups try to garner publicity and notoriety. The killing of a Western journalist will give even the smallest group days of coverage in the mainstream media.
In these conditions, it’s getting harder and harder to cover both sides of a conflict. In Mali, it’s often simply impossible to talk to insurgents. It’s hard to get close to the action without being embedded in the regular army. In these conditions, war reporting is, I fear, losing out.
I’ve been in conflicts, such as Syria and Libya, where I’ve been in the thick of it with bullets whizzing around me. But an important distinction is that in those places one can choose whether to cross a sniper’s alley or whether to beat a retreat or take cover behind a wall. But in the Malian desert, there’s no front line, there’s nothing. Just sand. In such a place, if you come across a 4x4 truck filled with armed men, there’s no way to escape. It’s over.
A nomad camp near the village of Bamba, northern Mali. October 30, 2013. (AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes)