Video report by Africa Correspondent Rohit Kachroo
As French troops head north into al-Qaeda's state-within-a-state, residents flee south from a town overrun by Islamists and pounded by French bombs.
The French soldiers, preparing for battle with Jihadists, believe their enemies will be crushed within weeks by their superior weaponry and organisation.
But nearby, wounded Malian troops are warning the French not to expect an easy fight.
"They may struggle to win," one Malian says from his hospital bed, "they [the Islamists] are a tough enemy."
Beyond the front line, Mali's vast desert holds a challenge to the French that may be much greater than they anticipate.
A propaganda video handed to ITV News appears to show life under militant control - a life which includes public beatings for those who break the rules.
On the streets of the areas liberated by the French are Tricolour flags reminiscent of a colonial past.
Refugees on this side of the divide are here because they knew a week's walk was better than the militant rule from which they fled.
France's belief is that Mali's enemy could someday be a significant threat to the West.