Unmasking a controversy in Mali

A French soldier wearing a skeleton mask stands next to a an armoured vehicle in a street in Niono, on January 20, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / Issouf Sanogo

A French legionnaire stands guard near armoured vehicles in Niono, in central Mali. His eyes are shielded by combat goggles, and a black mask depicting a grinning skeleton face is wrapped around his nose and mouth. To people familiar with videogaming, his imposing image may be reminiscent of Ghost, one of the characters from the violent game “Call of Duty.”

The January 20 image, shot by AFP photographer Issouf Sanogo, drew rapid reaction online, and from the French army itself. But the story behind the image is a little less gung-ho than one might think.

“I found myself alongside French troops stationed on some wasteland near the Niono prefecture,” Sanogo says.

“A helicopter was coming in to land and churning up tremendous dust clouds. Instinctively, all the soldiers grabbed their scarfs to avoid getting a mouthful of sand. It was evening, and rays of sunlight were pushing through the trees and into the dust clouds. It was a lovely light. I spotted this soldier wearing a strange scarf and took the photo. At the time, nothing about the scene seemed especially unusual or shocking. The soldier wasn’t posing and there was nothing staged about the image. He was just standing there, protecting his face from the dust, waiting for the chopper to land. No one tried to stop me shooting the picture.”

Malian youths stand next to French army vehicles in a street in Niono, on January 20, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / Issouf Sanogo

But the military command reacted angrily to the picture, with a top-brass spokesman in Paris calling the soldier’s behaviour “unacceptable.”

“This image is not representative of France’s action in Mali,” the spokesman, Colonel Thierry Burkhard, said at a news conference, adding the army was working to identify the masked man.

A screengrab from a French news site reads: "Mali: A soldier thinks he's in a video game.

Sanogo is a little surprised by the media storm. Based in Ivory Coast’s economic capital Abidjan, the photographer was sent to Mali to cover the French army’s push north into rebel lands.

He says the soldiers acted no differently toward him after the image was published. On January 21, he even travelled about 60 kilometres by road between Niono and Diabaly in a French armoured vehicle, without anyone saying anything about the picture.

“The troops are working in difficult conditions,” he says. “They travel thousands of kilometres by road and do what they can to entertain themselves a little. I don’t know the identity of the soldier in the scarf and I’d have a hard time recognising him even if I did see him again. I think -- and I hope -- that it’s impossible to tell who he is. I’m not even sure if he knows what people are saying about him.”

A French soldier flashes a victory sign as he stands atop a French tank in Niono, on January 20, 2013.
AFP PHOTO / Issouf Sanogo