Dispatches from the frontline

From west africa wins always Tue Jan 29 2013, 19:04:00

Last week in Mali, an excited crowd of journalists packed into rented 4x4's to see what was happening at the frontline, hoping for signs of war and scenes of combat, craving the adrenaline rush of being the first to enter an inhospitable danger zone. What they found instead was bored Malian soldiers smoking cigarettes in the shade of a tree or washing their feet before prayer as taut French troops made it clear the rebel-held towns were sealed off from nosy reporters. Some colleagues sat down to Twitter about likely military strategies and the prospect of a protracted guerrilla war that would take months if not years to win; others berated the French for being 'typically French', code for lacking joviality and displaying an ostensible indifference to the urgent needs of the press corps. Meanwhile, their Malian helpers discreetly chatted up their bosses' competitors to see if better gigs could be had now or in the near future, paddling their expertise and knowledge of local languages. After waiting for days in towns with nothing to offer but ramshackle bakeries, bottled Coca-Cola and curious village kids riding donkey carts, they became suspicious: surely the military were doing something sinister -- conducting acts of revenge perhaps? It all sounded frantic, and rather pointless. Judging from boastful Facebook posts, suddenly we were all experts on Mali. Yet no one really knew what was going on, and no one knew what was going to happen, least of all the fact that the French army would pretty much sweep out the Islamists in two weeks.

Then the dirt road to Diabaly finally opened to the press, and relieved residents told stories of gunfights and fear. Film crews focused on burned out pick-up trucks; there wasn't a whole lot else to see. Nearly everywhere else, life carried on as usual. The region is marked by an amazing feat of engineering called the Markala dam, which was designed in the 1930s by ...

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