Our vehicle was at the back of a column of armoured personnel carriers driving through the night towards the town of Diabaly. As the sun rose we could see rice and onion fields and canals of a semi-neglected irrigation project, a sign of the development which almost but never quite happened in this devastatingly poor part of Mali.

We passed a few villagers at the side of the road, some of whom waved with enthusiasm at the sight of the French.

They have been at the mercy of so much – corrupt government, weak army, crumbling infrastructure and now the jihadis.

French saviours

Their hope is that the French have come to save them.

Cameraman Soren Munk and I were squeezed amongst marines of the French 21st regiment who had flown in from their base in Chad a week ago.

We disembarked at the main square in Diabaly – a sandy dustbowl surrounding by a few dilapidated buildings,

The people looked shell-shocked. They stared. Then somebody shouted, “Vive la France” and waved a tricolore flag. Soon I was surrounded by young men who wanted to tell me their stories – how the jihadis had occupied the town for seven days, how they had looted the pharmacy of the hospital and stolen rice, cigarettes and TVs and computers from the army camp.

Mixed nationalities

The jihadis, they said, were a mixture of Malians and foreigners from Chad, Senegal, Somali, Afghanistan and beyond.

They said they knew their nationalities because some of them had fled leaving coins from their countries.

“They didn’t touch the population” said one man, “but they said that they would come back in two months’ time and impose their sharia.”

The townspeople were keen to tell me that two of the jihadi leaders were well known to them. They were deserters from the Malian army who had failed to protect Diabaly in the past and had now joined the other side.

Diabaly was attacked in 2009 and soldiers at the local army base had just fled. The same happened the week before last. “We are very happy to see the French” said one man, “but we are very disappointed in the Malian army. They did nothing to protect us.”

“Yes,” interjected another man, “I hope the French stay here for ten years.”

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