Armed with fresh paint and patrols, Mali's key northern city of Gao is trying to wipe out the traces left behind by the Islamists who ruled it until French and Malian forces came to its rescue last weekend.
A giant billboard declaring: "together for the sake of God almighty and the fight against sinners," used to remind the city's residents of the power of their former Sharia-law rulers, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
But no more. On Wednesday, Gao's governor General Adama Diallo and Mayor Sadou Diallo used a few strokes of fresh paint to make the hardline message -- plastered by the ochre-coloured city's eastern entrance -- disappear.
Along with other high-ranking officials, the two of them returned to their hometown from Bamako on January 26, on the same evening that French and Malian soldiers liberated Gao.
During the symbolic ceremony, the mayor declared that the Salafist-authored text "does not belong in the Republic of Mali." He paid homage to France and the African soldiers that took part in Gao's liberation.
He insisted that, in this city, located some 1,200 kilometres (750 miles) north-east of the capital, it is now a matter of "erasing traces left behind" by the MUJAO.
Only metres away, an administrative building, which used to be a base for the Islamists in Gao, lay in ruins, destroyed by French air strikes.
Since its liberation, Gao's population has already begun its work to eliminate its former feared masters. All over the city, especially where the Islamists had inscribed passages from the Koran, colourful Malian, French and African flags now decorate both billboards and walls.
The fear of "kamikaze" attacks
But black banners, still attached to some of Gao's buildings, provide evidence of the hardline rule the fleeing Islamists once held here.
The rebels "have left the city," but "the work continues with search operations," the governor told AFP on the sidelines of Wednesday's ceremony.
Malian army jeeps are visible throughout the city and French and Nigerian soldiers patrol the streets.
According to a local policeman, officers questioned a MUJAO suspect as recently as Wednesday morning. He also said that troops had seized a box of ammunition as well as knives and machetes.
"We believe there are still suspects in the city, we're continuing the search" for them, he said. At least 10 suspected Islamists have been arrested in surrounding villages since Saturday, he added.
Later Wednesday, Malian soldiers responded to calls by residents and searched the banks of the Niger River.
"We have to take the slightest rumour seriously," remarked a soldier, standing under the shade of a tree.
"These people are dangerous," he said, adding there were fears of potential "kamikaze" attacks.
"We are not reassured," Aboubacar Issa said while playing boules with a dozen other youths by the city's independence monument.
"There was no violent fighting in which people from MUJAO were killed. There were no bodies or combat material," he said. "They are hiding somewhere for certain, we're afraid they may return one day or another."
Despite the persistent fear, despite the tensions still lingering in the city, despite the electricity working only a few hours a day, Gao is, however, slowly coming back to life.
In the early hours of the morning, unveiled girls now play and sing while doing the laundry in the tranquil waters of the river.
© 2013 AFP
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