Locals welcome French soldiers in Bourem northen Mali on February 17, 2013.
AFP Photo/Pascal Guyot

By Pascal Guyot

Journalists and photographers in a war zone often find themselves beseeching military authorities for permission to get closer to the action. This is no less true of Mali, where French forces have led a largely successful effort over the last month to beat back Islamist rebels that had seized control of the country’s vast and arid north.

French, Malian and Nigerian troops has already secured Gao and Kidal along with the ancient and storied desert city of Timbuktu, and this time the objective was the crossroads town of Bourem. A handful of journalists were invited along, including yours truly.

We departed from a military base in a couple of Puma helicopters on a ‘tactical flight’ – i.e. doors wide open, a few dozen metres off the ground.  We crossed the Niger River and landed about 30 minutes later just outside of Bourem in a zone that had already been secured.

A Malian soldier handles ammunition aboard a vehicle as they enter Bourem northen Mali on February 17, 2013.
AFP Photo/Pascal Guyot

We entered town in a military convoy, with locals shouting and jumping with apparently genuine joy while waving little French flags (provenance unknown). We were not allowed to clamber down from our pick-ups until we got to the city center, and even then our movements were restricted. Bourem has several thousand inhabitants, and there was a risk, we were told, that a sniper could be lurking unseen among them. 

From start to finish, we were in Bourem for no more than 45 minutes.

The French army took a calculated risk in letting us tag along for the liberation of Bourem. But they clearly were in control. My guess is that special forces, possibly with the help of Malian troops, had already secured at least the central part of the town by the time we rolled in.

Locals welcome French soldiers in Bourem northen Mali on February 17, 2013.
AFP Photo/Pascal Guyot

The otherwise uneventful ride-along was punctuated by one mysterious – and very striking – tableau. As we were flying over the desert, we spied a band of several dozen Malians in the middle of nowhere, including one with a small French flag. Were they waiting for us?  Had they fled the town in fear? As we flew overhead, the flag-bearer waved the French standard while others waved…

Malians wave to a French military helicopter on February 17, 2013, near Bourem, northern Mali.
AFP Photo/Pascal Guyot