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On Patrol With the Soldiers Battling Bandits, Islamist Militants, and Mistrust in Mali

The United Nations' deadliest-ever peacekeeping mission is struggling to help rebuild Mali after three years of devastating civil war. They're having mixed results.

by Jack Watling and Paul Raymond
Jul 19 2015, 7:29pm

Photo by Paul Raymond

There are 10 of us in the armored personnel carrier, sweating under body armor as we bounce along the road out of Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara Desert in Mali. It's nearly 110 degrees.

We're on patrol with soldiers from Burkina Faso who are serving as United Nations peacekeepers. They hold old Kalashnikovs and wear UN-blue helmets whose paint jobs have seen better days. After three years of civil war in Mali, they are here trying to help put the country back together. It is the UN's deadliest peacekeeping mission to date.

The peacekeepers make two of these patrols a day, setting out in convoys from their base at the airport toward a tiny village and a makeshift port on the Niger River. Their aim is to secure the vast desert of northern Mali, protect civilians from armed attacks, and help the state reimpose the authority it lost when al Qaeda-linked jihadist militants and Tuareg rebels overran the region in early 2012.

The militants' rapid advance left the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal under a brutal form of Islamic law, prompting panic in the capital of Bamako and a military coup against a government seen as having crumbled before the rebel advance. In the confusion, half the country fell into rebel hands and government officials fled south; most have yet to return.

A soldier from Burkina Faso patrols the harbor at Korioume, a strategic river crossing and center for the local economy. (Photo by Paul Raymond)

France, the colonial power in Mali until 1960, maintains close economic and political ties to its former African colonies, and led an international effort to drive back the jihadists and force Mali to return to civilian government through the imposition of sanctions. In April 2013, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was set up to stabilize the vast West African country and mediate between the government and Tuareg separatists trying to establish an independent state called Azawad.

MINUSMA has its work cut out. Despite a peace deal signed between the government and the Tuareg rebels on June 20, jihadists, bandits, and militias are still active. Groups of armed men on motorbikes frequently ride into remote villages, setting fire to buildings and stealing cars and supplies.

The UN itself is a target for roadside bombs, mortar attacks, and drive-by shootings. On July 2 a patrol was attacked en route to Gundam near Timbuktu. Six Burkinabé soldiers were killed and five more were wounded. So far the mission has lost 42 soldiers, with 166 injured, making MINUSMA the most deadly UN mission in history. And in this huge ungoverned space the size of Spain, simply keeping troops fed and vehicles running is an enormous challenge.

We left the base at Timbuktu airport at 11am in a convoy of seven vehicles: a mine-resistant armored personnel carrier (APC) at the front and rear, three old pickup trucks mounted with machine guns (also known as technicals), a flatbed, and an ambulance.

The 10 miles of road leading to the river, left to disrepair since the 1990s, has disintegrated into little more than jagged pieces of asphalt hiding under the sand, waiting to smash the suspension of passing vehicles. As we go over one bump, a soldier is flung out of his seat and his head crashes into the roof. This bit of road is decrepit, but its importance as a link between Timbuktu, the airport, and the river makes securing it a top priority for the UN. Along its length are sandbag machine gun emplacements nestled under the sparse foliage. There hasn't been an attack here for months, but the same can't be said for roads further into the desert, where IEDs are common.

The soldiers reached the village of Korioume at about midday and piled out of the vehicles. Some formed a perimeter along the road, scanning the horizon for the sand trails kicked up by technicals. The rest accompanied the platoon's lieutenant, entering Korioume to speak to the villagers. Half a mile away, across a cracked and barren floodplain, young men at the waterfront unloaded goods from traditional canoes onto vans for transport into Timbuktu. A couple of tired-looking Malian soldiers stood under the only tree in the area.

* * *

Back at the base, a flash report comes in. Two children, a 7-year-old and 11-year-old, were maimed after picking up an IED. It is the third violent incident of the day. In the morning, a civilian convoy was robbed by masked gunmen who grabbed their victims' meager belongings before disappearing into the desert. The same thing happens almost every day; the UN's Quick Reaction Force has an effective operational range of 10 miles, which takes them 20 minutes to cover. The force has six attack helicopters — two Dutch Apaches and four Defenders from El Salvador — but sandstorms often ground them. MINUSMA rarely prevents the bandit attacks.

Further north toward Gao and Kidal, remote UN bases come under mortar fire at night. A Western diplomat told us that soldiers at some outposts are given as little as a quart of drinking water a day. UN supply convoys from the south are harassed by bandits and have to be escorted, leaving Timbuktu with a low reserve of food and fuel.

Obstacles like these have hobbled the UN, prompting the widespread perception among Malians that the organization is failing to protect them. The evening before going on patrol, we visited Salem Ould El-Hadj, a local historian, at his house in a dusty Timbuktu backstreet. He'd broken his Ramadan fast and was resting on a mattress on the roof as the daytime heat started to fade.

"People think MINUSMA are doing a bad job," he said. "We thought they would be like the French, but they've done nothing. We can't even leave Timbuktu because it's not secure."

In late May, he said, a raiding party attacked the village of Bouren, about 40 miles southwest of Timbuktu. They rode in on motorcycles and pickups, fired in the air, and stole vehicles and food. By the time MINUSMA arrived, the gang had retreated to the desert.

"They are soldiers sent here to protect the population, but they stand there with terrorists in front of them and do nothing," Salem said. "If they are just going to stand there, they might as well not have come."

Peacekeepers are briefed before heading out on patrol. (Photo by Paul Raymond)

Such views are common across Mali. Though some locals do say that Timbuktu would fall back into the hands of extremists if the UN weren't there, a wide range of people — journalists and university professors, shopkeepers and taxi drivers — told us that the UN is failing.

For Lieutenant Colonel Elie Tarpaga, the commander of the Burkinabé battalion guarding Timbuktu, part of the problem is that security is somewhat intangible — people only notice when things go wrong.

"We don't have the mandate to catch and arrest people," he said, sitting behind a desk pocked with bullet holes at the base. "But when there's an attack, we go there and the attackers go away. Even if you are providing security, people say you are doing nothing."

Managing expectations is arguably more important than ever following the June 20 peace deal that grants the Tuareg separatists greater political autonomy in exchange for an end to their efforts to create a separate state. If the accord doesn't lead to a noticeable improvement in security for ordinary Malians, it is unlikely to be respected. According to internal UN documents, pro-government militia groups violated the ceasefire just days after it was signed.

* * *

Restoring the state is proving an enormous task. Two years after France launched Operation Serval to oust Islamist militants, most government officials who fled the north still refuse to return to their posts. Several have been assassinated as far south as the central region of Mopti. But despite the failings of the state, every violent attack erodes the UN's credibility.

"On the one hand they get upset if we breach Mali's sovereignty, and on the other hand they expect us to fulfil the responsibilities of the state," said Radhia Achouri, the mission's chief spokeswoman.

Peacekeepers secure the road to the market as they watch for rebel forces. (Photo by Paul Raymond)

Achouri's office is on the 16th floor of the Hotel A'mitié, a luxury hotel in the capital of Bamako that serves as the mission's headquarters. Towering above the chaotic streets and diesel fumes of the capital, the hotel is surrounded by blast walls and razor wire, with machine guns trained on the entrance.

Mongi Hamdi, Tunisia's former foreign minister who's now heading up the UN mission, is keenly aware of the disconnect between the mission and the Malian people. Since he took up the job in December, he's launched a radio station to make the public more aware of the mission's role, and reached out to local religious figures. In June, MINUSMA held a conference with members of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCIM), crucial interlocutors in a deeply religious country where imams hold far more sway than any other public figures. It was the first meeting of its kind.

A young soldier sits in a sweltering APC at the head of a UN patrol. The vehicle is designed to resist IEDs, but not the anti-tank mines rebels smuggle into Mali from Libya. (Photo by Jack Watling)

"It is true that MINUSMA had an image problem," Hamdi told VICE News. "But I knew their culture, I had been to Mali many times before in my capacity as Tunisia's minister for foreign affairs. As soon as I arrived, my first priorities were to visit the president of the republic, to visit the religious leadership, and to visit the important families of Mali."

Hamdi said he's planning a series of rapid measures to provide electricity, water, better roads, and services across the north.

"I want to introduce this new idea of a peace dividend," he said. "The population of the north has to feel the dividends of peace right away. But the implementation phase will be very much challenged by the negative forces that do not want peace and stability in Mali."

Those forces are many. Last week, police in Mali arrested about 20 suspected Islamist militants, including at least two French citizens and the organizer of a bold attack on a restaurant in Bamako in March. There are still a large number of unemployed and armed young men in the north. The UN might be able to negotiate with the rebels, but the roving bandits and local gangs are proving much harder to control.

"The UN is in a shitty situation," one Western diplomat told us in his office, striking his hand against a wall map of Mali that showed the blank desert stretching north from Timbuktu for hundreds of miles.

"How the fuck do you secure an area like that?"

Follow Jack Watling (@Jack_Watling) and Paul Raymond (@Paul_A_Raymond) on Twitter.

All photos via Jack Watling and Paul Raymond

Reporting supported in part by funding from the International Reporting Project.