April 1, 2013
This February, after a victorious battle against Islamic insurgents in the Saharan city of Gao, the Malian army put on a tour for the assembled press. Journalists from various news outlets from around the world stood in a dusty courtyard in the heart of the city. Gao is a conservative town—the sort of place where six-month-old babies wear hijabs—and since last year, it has played host to some of the fiercest battles in an international conflict that could reach far beyond Mali’s 15 million people: the fight to prevent al Qaeda from flourishing in Africa.
The press tour was supposed to be a victory celebration. French soldiers, who had offered military support to the Malian troops in the recent battle, stood silently at the edge of Gao’s central courtyard and watched with amusement as the Malians led reporters around the battlefield. Gendarmes swathed in ammo belts guided the journalists around the town’s courthouse, pointing out dismembered limbs and dead jihadists crumpled on the ground.
One soldier called our attention to a severed head facedown in the dust. “Is it Malian, do you think?” I asked. The gendarme kicked it over and studied the face. Dark blood dripped from its mouth. A fly crawled up its nose. “Nah, maybe Algerian or Nigerien,” the gendarme said, grinning with pride. Nearby, in the town hall, next to a body hunched in a stairwell over its machine gun, the soldiers pointed out a wide streak of blood that had burst up the wall and across the ceiling. “Suicide bomber,” they said. “Look, here’s his head.” It was more of a face than a head, though, a puzzled countenance lying wrinkled on the floor in a dusty frown, its skull sheared off by the blast. The cameramen pointedly avoided filming it. “You’d never get it on TV,” one reporter later said, “so why even bother?”
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