GAO, MALI— The Malian army officially reclaimed the northern city of Gao from the al-Qaida-linked Islamist group MUJAO on January 27 -- after 10 months of occupation. But now, three months later, the state is still struggling to reassert its presence in the city and the surrounding region. The city is trying to rebuild -- after a tumultuous year that residents say showed them what they were made of.
An everyday scene that would have been unthinkable just four months ago under the Islamist militant sect MUJAO. And certainly not in Gao. MUJAO anointed the "Sharia Square;" it's where they whipped people and cut off hands.
It's in the heart of downtown that bears the scars of a year of conflict, occupation and resistance.
Youth leader Ibrahim Maiga says it is where protesters marched against a Tuareg separatist group, the MNLA, on June 26 -- after the group's fighters killed a local teacher. He says the MNLA, which co-ruled Gao at the time, fired on the march and killed three youths. "Never. Never will I be able to walk through here without thinking of that day, those six hours, and what we did here," he said.
Looted administrative buildings sit eerily empty. The courthouse was destroyed. Offices are closed. The market is quiet. Banks are still bricked up.
The state governor, General Mamadou Adama Diallo, works out of an empty private home on a couch donated by local residents. "We had to come back for our country. Our personal safety and comfort don't matter," he explained. "The administration is returning to posts throughout the region and we will work in whatever conditions we find. It's difficult, but it is what must be done."
Citizens hopeful, but cautious
Patriotism may be at an all-time high in Gao, but daily life is far from normal.
Jihadists could attack. A citizen's medical committee continues to run the hospital as it did under occupation. Residents get about 30 hours of electricity a week, thanks to the Red Cross. Food prices have climbed since the Algerian border closed in January at the start of the French-led military intervention.
"We want Gao to go back to how it was before the problems," said Gao resident, Khadi Diatta. " We want it to develop. We are hungry and tired."
Khadi Diatta is part of a street-cleaning group created under occupation by a regional advisory committee of imams and civil society leaders that mediated between residents and the armed groups.
Teacher Kata Diatta Hosseini Maiga, a member of that committee, says the state was gone -- so residents had to pull together. And they got results. "What the population did on a voluntary basis, we've never seen that before," Maiga noted.
That solidarity remains, he says, and they will need it and the state administration to put the city back together again.