A few days before the collision of the two French helicopters on a combat mission on Monday, November 25, AFP journalists had followed the first joint patrol of G5 Sahel and Barkhane forces.
A report from Amaury Hauchard of AFP, photos Michele Cattani.
There is in the forest of Tofa Gala, in northern Burkina Faso, near Mali, a swamp covered with water lilies whose vision would almost forget that here too, as elsewhere in the Sahel, the war is raging.
This Saturday of November at dawn, French soldiers advance arms in hand on one side of the swamp. On the other side, Burkinabè soldiers walk in parallel.
Deployments are increasing in the Sahel against the jihadist movements that proliferate. But this operation is unprecedented and illustrates the renewed effort to finally overcome an elusive enemy. This is the first time that the French, the national armies and the G5 Sahel multinational force (Mali, Burkina, Niger, Mauritania and Chad) are officially working together in the field.
Mission of the 1,400 soldiers of this operation Bourgou IV (600 of the 4,500 French force Barkhane): restore authority in a remote area where no army has set foot for more than a year, leaving the field free to jihadists.
This forest, and the entire region known as “three borders” between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, are the main area of action of the Sahelian jihadist movements.
“It's a good place to hide and maintain logistics, a cross-border region and very difficult to access”said Colonel Thibauld Lemerle, who oversees a large part of the operation on the French side.
These groups emerged after the Malian independence crisis of 2012. From northern Mali, they have extended their actions in the center of the country and its neighbors, Niger and Burkina leading. Since 2012, hostilities, coupled with intercommunal violence, have left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.
In neglected sectors, the jihadists have capitalized on the feeling of abandonment and the tensions in the community to enlist.
Some took the banner of al-Qaeda, others of the organization of the Islamic State. A third group, Ansarul Islam, remains independent. They share the same spaces, in competition or collaboration.
“They are there, but hidden, we seek them, but we do not find them, it's an impossible war,” said a young French non-commissioned officer, assault rifle in hand. Spread over vast territories, merging into the population, they often regroup before the attack.
A detonation sounds in the swamp. Is the enemy wanted? No, a burkinabè summons fire at the passage of a local. The march resumes. We discover and carry two abandoned motorcycles in the middle of the undergrowth, suspected of serving jihadists with formidable mobility.
The following Monday, French intelligence intercepted a communication from one of Ansarul Islam's leaders a few kilometers from Bourgou's positions. His phone is located 300 meters away.
Eighty French are sent to contact, overflown by a Mirage 2000 and drones. Walking hours follow one another. Always nothing.
“It's like looking for a needle in a haystack, it can be here, it can already be gone”says Lieutenant Julien, before giving his orders to the radio. “We go into shooting without warning!”
We are still moving forward, the stress is rising. “Village 200 meters away”sizzles the radio. Six huts are looming under the blazing sun, some women and children are grouped under an acacia tree. No man.
In silence, French elements search the houses. One cuts a mattress, the other shakes the mats. “We are looking for means of communication and components used to make IED”, artisanal mines, says group leader Pierrick. Some phones are found and the troop leaves for two hours of walking to join the vehicles.
Later, two rank soldiers iron the thread of the day: “We can not search like that and cut mattresses, look at how people are watching us!”
Motorcycle or armored
“But that's the only way! Imagine if a phone was hidden in the mattress.” “In areas of terrorist influence, everyone can potentially be an enemy, they know it and play it”, abounds a French officer. The locals, between the hammer and the anvil, pay the high price.
While Barkhane's soldiers have strict rules of engagement, the Malian and Burkinabe armies have been repeatedly blamed for human rights violations.
We assure the French side that, during joint operations, mechanisms are put in place to control the commitment. This is to prevent burrs whose impact could be serious. Some mechanisms are not always respected by the partners, admits a French source.
“It can become a trap for us”slips a French officer. “But evolve with men on a motorcycle when you are slower armored, it's interesting”.
A Burkinabe officer adds: “With the security measures and the sound of tanks, it is normal that the French never find anything when they arrive.We on motorbikes, we are more mobile”.
And more exposed. A few days earlier, two Burkinabe motorcycle soldiers were killed by an artisanal mine. About 170 Malian and Burkinabe soldiers have been killed since early September by suspected jihadists. A soldier from Barkhane was killed by an artisanal mine.
For these Sahelian, underfunded, under-equipped and under-trained armies, logistics are “complicated, in terms of water supply and food especially“, says Captain Wendimanégdé Kaboré, Burkinabè unit commander.On many evenings, Burkinabe soldiers come to get water packs and food from the French.
A fleeting glory
On Monday, at the end of the day, a new warning falls: “bells” (informants who warn the jihadists of the passage of the armed forces) have been located some kilometers. The tanks are spinning in a cloud of sand.
They arrive in the target village. Three men run off and throw objects into the undergrowth. One of them is arrested a few minutes later.
In old jogging, with a sports jacket on his back, he does not say a word.
“We took a phone and he ran away when we arrived while the inhabitants stayed, it's suspicious, but we have nothing, we will release him”says Lieutenant Julien.
A hundred phones like this one were seized during the two weeks of Bourgou IV, 24 people were killed or captured and about 60 motorcycles taken according to the French staff. The 1,400 soldiers withdrew on November 17, abandoning the area again to itself, or to others.
If this assessment may seem lean in view of the means deployed, the various staffs welcome. “The result is not only arithmetic, there are these 24 people but also all those who fled, all the resources turned upside down by our presence”said Colonel Raphael Bernard.
“We do not have daily appointments with glory, but we work together, we shake the jar and we are in combat”.