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Beer, paint help erase Mali's recent pain

By Agence France-Press in Gao, Mali | China Daily | Updated: 2013-03-25 08:01

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 where 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 this month after nine months of closure enforced by the armed Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, known as 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 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 at 7 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, explained: "At the start, people hid alcohol in oil drums or buried it deep in sacks of coal but this didn't last. They were flogged."

Jihadist control

Apart from cautiously reopening their drinking holes, the citizens of Gao are trying to turn the page on Islamist occupation with the help of paintbrushes. For weeks, Yacouba Maiga, a town councilor, has been covering walls and signs in the town with 80 kilograms 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".

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

"After the attacks and the suicide bombings that took place, people asked themselves whether the town had really been recaptured. Psychologically, it was important to show them that, yes, we are free," Maiga said.

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