In Mali the battle is to cover an ‘invisible’ war

Friday 1 March 2013, 14:22

Thomas Fessy Thomas Fessy is the BBC's West Africa correspondent

Malian soldiers It felt, from the first, like an invisible war. We were told the French had carried out new air strikes here and there. We were told that a number of pick-up trucks had been destroyed.

But, like all the other journalists in Mali, fantastic producer and camerawoman Firle Davies and I were not on the spot to report as eye-witnesses. We were stuck with military sources instead.

Other colleagues were taken to towns where targets had been hit to film charred vehicles and piles of rubble. The deserted aftermath, these were the only pictures journalists would have access to.

We were desperate to cover the rapid deployment of the French but the ‘hot zones’ that French-led forces were moving towards remained blocked to the media. As we drove from Bamako to different locations trying to get access, checkpoints were erected by the Malian army and no-one was allowed through. It was a logistical nightmare.

One thing was in my favour: I had made some good contacts with the French and one way or another we would be flown into Timbuktu. Eventually.

Thomas Fessy reporting from Mali On the helicopter we were allowed to board, I remember scribbling a few factual questions on a piece of paper and passing them to the French colonel who was sitting on the other side. We were flying at 250km per hour, 10 metres above ground, he scribbled back. Two soldiers were sitting on tiny, unstable beach stools on either side of the helicopter, fingers on the triggers of their machine guns.

Earlier we had experienced high G-force when we landed on board a Transall on the airstrip of Goundam. Goundam is that dot on a map one would call ‘the middle of nowhere’. Back in Bamako, a French captain had warned us: “We can fly you to Goundam but then you’re on your own. You will need to figure out how to reach Timbuktu, with or without a French convoy.”

But the Transall was taking us to within 80km of Timbuktu and it was an opportunity we couldn’t turn down. As we touched down we had no way of knowing that the only other French captain I was in touch with was also at Goundam airstrip and would allow us to board an attack helicopter to finally reach our destination.

When we landed in Timbuktu it was with a mixture of relief and excitement: relief that we had made it; excitement about the beginning of what turned out to be an incredible week of reporting.

So many months had passed since extremist fighters linked to al-Qaeda had imposed their rule in the city and I had been in touch with a number of residents by phone throughout that time.

In a way it was as amazing to be there as a journalist as it was for the French soldiers who had been parachuted in overnight. The French colonel, who’d leaned on his automatic rifle to answer my scribbled questions in the helicopter, had led the operation from the air. He was very proud: “The French were parachuted over Kolwezi (southern DR Congo in 1978) and they did it again for Timbuktu,” he told me. “We did it lights off, under a full moon.”

Some days after I would meet a foreign legionnaire who confessed that: “It was such a disappointment not to run into a gun battle. It’s like if you train at football but never play a match!”

We were there to cover a war and still hadn’t seen a gun battle either. What we did witness were scenes of jubilation in downtown Timbuktu as people let go after months of severe oppression. All the stories I had heard over the phone and fed into in my news coverage over the past year suddenly became real. I could feel how much of a ‘liberation’ this was.

There was no telephone network in Timbuktu and only a few hours of electricity and running water each day. Operating in the desert heat or a sandstorm that lasted two days made it all the more difficult. We and our gear weathered the dust for days and nights. It made our noses bleed in the mornings.

Our next journey was a 48-hour ride to the town of Gao, in convoy with columns of French armoured vehicles and heavy artillery. I recorded my From Our Own Correspondent piece on Timbuktu in our car (catch the item 18 minutes 45 second in) while French soldiers and a few journalists were setting up a bivouac around us just before 1am. We set off again, caked in dust, before dawn.

Thomas Fessy broadcasting live from Mali The atmosphere in Gao was more tense than anywhere else. Fear was taking over as Islamist militants were coming back to spread terror. Two days in a row, we woke up to a loud blast and twice it was a suicide bomber blowing himself up. Heavy fighting broke out in the middle of the town on our third day there. We had been covering a war for several weeks and we couldn’t see it. But here it was.

While Gao still struggles with Islamist militant incursions, French troops and soldiers from Chad are conducting operations further north near the border with Algeria. Al-Qaeda fighters and their allies have re-grouped in the mountains.

Journalists cannot reach this area unless they’re embedded with the French or the Chadian army. But for now whatever happens in the far north is happening unseen. When the French defence minister tells us that “hundreds” of jihadis have been killed since the beginning of this military campaign, we can only decide whether to believe him. Because this is a war that still largely remains without pictures.


This is an edited version of Thomas Fessy’s account of reporting from Mali. BBC staff can read the full article in the latest edition of theNEWSmagazine.

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