Connect to share and comment

North Mali's drinkers toast France for return of beer

PlacardEnlarge
(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Close to the banks of the Niger river, men in the north Malian city of Gao gather at nightfall to drink beer, in one of the daily signs of life in a town whose residents are working to wipe out all traces of hardline Islamist occupation.

With its walls of red clay, its white chairs and its tepid French export beer, Le Petit Dogon bar reopened last week after nine months of closure enforced by the armed Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), whose fundamentalists were driven out by French-led troops this year.

On Sunday night, a dozen people are present. A Malian soldier, with a "France" patch stitched to his uniform, listens to music on his mobile phone, which has a screensaver featuring a topless woman. Yehia Maiga, a 33-year-old road haulage driver, waves his cigarette and says, "This beer is thanks to (French President) Francois Hollande!"

Like many people in Gao, the owner of Le Petit Dogon fled the town after the armed Islamists arrived. More than a month after French troops intervened and Mali's biggest northern town was "liberated", he has not returned but a friend has taken charge of the bar.

"Even if we were not close, we said 'The bar has to reopen to show that all that is over'," Moussa Traore said before bursting out laughing. "Freedom! Goodbye terrorists!"

Near an Arab market, another bar, Le Thilephanso, opened immediately after MUJAO left. But even on a Saturday night at 7:00 pm, two hours short of the curfew still imposed on the town, there is nobody on the terrace, which is surrounded by small rooms where prostitutes used to take their clients.

A year ago, before the Tuareg rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and then the MUJAO jihadists exerted control over the dusty town, Gao had about a dozen flourishing bars and restaurants.

Since then, the town has had to do without alcohol. Ousmane, a former teacher who lived through the months of strict Sharia law, explains: "At the start, people hid alcohol in oil drums or buried deep in sacks of coal, but this didn't last. They were flogged."

Apart from cautiously reopening their drinking holes, citizens of Gao are trying to turn the page on Islamist occupation with the help of paint brushes. For weeks, Yacouba Maiga, a town councillor, has been covering walls and signs in the town with 80 kilograms (176 pounds) of paint, which he bought with other elected officials. The aim is to cover up the Islamist slogans daubed almost everywhere by MUJAO.

The sign for "Sharia Square" has been painted over in white. At the entrance to the town, a message welcoming travellers to "the Gao Islamic state" has been changed to read "Malian state". And dozens of messages about God and his prophet Mohammed have almost all been erased.

"I've got two more to do. But I'm out of paint," Maiga says. Gao has become a town with white signs, French flags and even slogans reading "Vive la Frans" (Long Live France) on its walls.

-- Women 'are getting their confidence back' --

-----------------------------------------------

"After the attacks and the suicide bombings that took place (in February, when Islamists raided the town), people asked themselves whether the town had really been recaptured. Psychologically, it was important to show them that, yes, we are free," Maiga explains.

He adds that the freeing of the town was leading to the gradual disappearance of another sign "that is really difficult to get rid off, the burka," the most concealing of all Islamic veils for women.

Women and girls were compelled to wear the burka while MUJAO was in town. "At the beginning, they were traumatised, but then they got used to it," says Lieutenant Colonel Nema Sagara, a Malian officer responsible for relations with the population. To discard the veil, he adds, "it will take time, but they are getting their confidence back."

Up until only a few weeks ago, young girls and boys were separated in school. "MUJAO divided up the classes, like in the buses, where they installed partitions. All that is finished, it's history," says civil servant Abdramane Cisse.

However, there remain lasting traces from the Islamist occupation that will never disappear: the amputations carried out in the name of Sharia law, notably on those convicted of stealing. It is difficult to tell how many people suffered such punishment, but witnesses say there were only a few.

At a crossroads on Rue 381, Ibrahim Drissa sells bits and pieces at a stall. For a week, he has had cigarettes. "Before, you were beaten for that," he says. He displays two brands: "American Legend" and "Liberte" (Freedom).

sj/stb/nb/ks/pvh

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130317/north-malis-drinkers-toast-france-return-beer