By Stiphane Jourdain, AFP
GAO, Mali — 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 whose residents are working to wipe out all traces of hard-line 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 (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 (French President) 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 night at 7:00 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.