We drove into Gao on the back of a military pick up. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Thousands of residents of the town came out onto the streets. Shouting praise for France and Francois Hollande and then the motorbikes came up.

Thousands of men and women on motorbikes honking their horns and screaming. Weeping in hysterics and disbelief that this day had come.

They rallied around us as we sped through the streets throwing Malian flags around our necks. Grabbing our hands shouting “thank you, thank you.”

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For nine long months the people of Gao have not been allowed to sing, dance, shout or smoke. The women have not been allowed outside unveiled, let alone ride motorbikes.

Now they were doing everything as loudly and chaotically as possible. Behind us the dust swept up and we saw bikes stretching into the distance. The green, yellow and red of the Malian flag and the red, white and blue of France everywhere.

A young man in a black T-shirt climbed upon the back of our pick up – he shouted “Liberté! Liberté!” before stepping off and being lost in the crowd.

It is hard to find the words to describe a scene of such passion and thrill as the extraordinary moment I witnessed streaming through the streets of Gao this afternoon.

Follow Lindsey Hilsum on Twitter: @lindseyhilsum