Malians face new French presence in Niono

Flags of Mali and France fly side by side. Photo:

On the liberated streets of Niono, French flags haven't fluttered like this since colonial times. The old imperial power is here and, largely, they are welcome.

'Vive la France' screams Emmanuel, a 64 year old doctor, as French supply vehicles move through his town on their way towards the front line. He well remembers how he celebrated the news that Mali had won independence from France in 1960.

Yet today he feels the same jubilation, and has bought a tricolor flag from a street vendor who is doing a roaring trade in everything French.

France has been accused of neo-colonialism by intervening in Mali. It now has 2,000 troops on the ground attempting to seize control of the northern desert from Islamist rebels suspected of creating a haven for al-Qaeda terrorists to attack the west.

When Niomo was threatened by an advance of jihadists, Emmanuel began to view "the old oppressors" with new eyes.

"They came to help us when no one else would, and for that we like them" he says.

The flags which fly from buildings, lorries and motorbikes, are evidence that many people support the French operation to 'save Mali' from an army of extremists who had come dangerously close to communities like this one.

On the outskirts of the desert, the fabled town of Niono typifies much of Mali's enchanting beauty. It's charming square and stunning mosque have endured countless wars to tell the story of a beautiful nation with a rich architectural heritage. This is 'the other side' of a war-ravaged nation which, tragically, seems likely to become a new epicenter for global terrorism.

Contrast the drug trafficking economy and punishment beatings of northern Mali to the friendly street trade and bustle of beautiful Niono; it is clear which life most people here prefer.

At the nearest hospital, in the provincial town of Segou, hardened medics admit that they have succumbed to "a sense of nationalism". One leads us to a ward in the ramshackle complex which has been devoted to military casualties.

Six weary Malian soldiers lie in their beds - badly bruised but not broken. Although some suspect that the French have underestimated the ferocity of their enemy, others are confident that they will eventually succeed.

"With the help of the French we will beat the Islamists," says 30 year old Sergeant Malik Dombia, who was shot in the leg by advancing militants.

"They deal drugs and buy guns - they are not even proper Muslims. If I am asked to return to the frontline to help my French comrades, I would not hesitate to say 'yes'".

But 67-year old Aboubacrine Dicko is less enthused by the French mission. We find him underneath the shade of the trees, lying on the ground and struggling to move. He broke an arm and injured his legs as he raced to mount his donkey to join the exodus from the nearby town of Diabili, which was overrun by Islamists, then bombarded by French fighter jets.

"The French bombing destroyed my home. They must end this soon or there will be resentment," he says.

But France has promised that its military operation will be swift. The people of Niono desperately hope so.