30 March 2013 Last updated at 22:35 ET
BBC News - Mali conflict: Desert fighting on 'Mars'
Mali conflict: Desert fighting on 'Mars'
By Thomas Fessy BBC News, northern Mali
French-led forces have recovered the main cities in northern Mali held by Islamist rebels. But in the desert, the fighting goes on, in terrain that appears to be from another planet.
The helicopter flew with its lights off in the dead of night.
When we finally landed, we could feel the sharp rocks under our boots but still could not see anything. It felt like we were cut off from the rest of the world.
Later the first light of dawn revealed the vastness of a rocky desert, with mountain crests and sandy lines cutting through the landscape like human veins. I don't think I have ever felt that small, that insignificant.
As the sun rose, soldiers appeared one after another in their beige uniforms, ready to march through yet another day in this hostile wilderness.
These men were from the French Foreign Legion, a force which, uniquely, draws its soldiers from many nationalities.
Soldier at sunrise
Traditionally it is prepared to draw a veil over a candidate's background or criminal record.
But today many Eastern Europeans or South Americans join up simply because they can earn a lot more money than they would with their own countries' armies.
"We've just left planet Earth and we're now on Mars," a Romanian legionnaire shouted.
We were climbing a steep hill, over jagged and slippery rocks, at the time.
Continue reading the main story
From Our Own Correspondent
Insight and analysis from BBC correspondents, journalists and writers from around the world
Broadcast on Radio 4 and BBC World Service
Listen to the programme
Download the programme
From the top we hoped to get a view of the whole valley below.
With flak jacket on, helmet, rucksack, TV and radio equipment, enough food for the day and six litres of water, we were carrying more than 30 kilos in weight.
The soldiers, with their weapons and ammunition, each carried twice that weight.
By 9am, we had been walking for three hours and it was over 40 degrees Celsius.
The heat waves were actually visible in the air, and as an Australian corporal put it to me: "A bit of wind feels like someone aiming a blow-dryer right into your face."
The legionnaires were searching the desert for jihadi fighters. They had discovered plenty of their hideouts already.
In some, established near the rare wells in this dry and arid landscape, militants had grown their own vegetable gardens.
French Foreign Legion in Mali
The soldiers loved the fresh tomatoes and onions - delicacies after days of military rations.
One legionnaire pointed towards his boots - they were so destroyed by the rocks that he was happy to find a pair which had been abandoned by the enemy.
He swapped his boots and joked about wearing "jihadi shoes".
Most of the soldiers had served in Afghanistan. One said that the trickiest thing there was that as soon as they engaged the enemy, they would melt away into the villages.
Here, though, they can be anywhere around us. And they fight to the death.
We did not run into a firefight during the two days we spent marching with the Legion.
But we found explosives and other items left behind by the jihadis.
Shadow of a helicopter in the desert
We had seen the remains of suicide bombers in the northern town of Gao. Now we were looking at the sort of explosive belts they used.
A French de-mining engineer explained that they were very sophisticated with detonators made of copper, which is harder for metal detectors to spot.
There were also drums filled with nitrate for making bombs. The French blew them all up before we moved on.
We entered a dry sandy riverbed, which led to a long stretch of flat desert.
We had to reach a hill on the far side and the officer in charge, Captain Clement, was worried we would be too exposed, out in the open: "We won't be able to take cover if anything happens."
But there was no other way. We had to do it in one go, and fast.
As we started to sprint, the captain explained that one of his men had been shot and wounded by a sniper a few weeks before.
French Foreign Legionnaire on the radio
Eventually we reached the top of the hill on the far side of that flat stretch of desert. We all fell to the ground.
The rocks we lay on felt like burning coals but we were so exhausted, standing up was simply not an option.
My mouth and throat were dry. It was painful to swallow.
We marched nearly all that day under the boiling sun. When darkness eventually fell, the temperature, in this landscape of extremes, rapidly dropped to freezing point.
Exhausted, we lay our sleeping bags on the desert floor, climbed in and went to sleep under the stars.
The legionnaires had been chasing jihadi fighters on foot for weeks. They had lost track of time.
For them, this was just another day in Mali's far north or, as they call it, planet Mars.
How to listen to From OurFamilies in Mali splintered by slavery as culture and conflict converge | Celeste Hicks | Global development | guardian.co.uk
Families in Mali splintered by slavery as culture and conflict converge
Tuareg rebels are capitalising on fighting in Mali to reacquire former captives whom they regard as their property from birth
Celeste Hicks in Bamako
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 3 April 2013 04.59 EDT
MDG : Slavery : A child (slave) washes dishes in a crowded a slum in Bamako, Mali
A child in Bamako. The collapse of the state in Mali makes slavery hard to combat. Photograph: Jake Lyell/Alamy
"I haven't heard anything about my brother for more than a year," says Raichatou Walet Touka. She's been living at a safehouse in Bamako, Mali's capital, after fleeing the northern town of Gao following an attack by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg rebel group that briefly took over northern Mali in early 2012.
Thousands were displaced by the fighting, and the subsequent battle for control of northern Mali between Islamist rebels and the MNLA. But the situation facing Raichatou has been particularly perilous, for she comes from a family considered by many in the MNLA leadership as slaves.
"I can't sleep at night," she says, wiping away tears. "I wake up feeling bad and thinking about my family who are still there."
In 2008, Raichatou escaped slavery in the northern desert town of Menaka, heading for the relative safety of Gao. But when the MNLA took control, she fled, fearing her old Tuareg slave masters might try to recapture her.
Anti-slavery groups say the conflict and ensuing political chaos in Mali has worsened the situation facing the 250,000 people who live in conditions of slavery in the west African state. The MNLA leadership and parts of the Ansar Dine Islamist group, which fought for control of the north last year, come from Tuareg noble families, some of whom are responsible for continuing the practice of slavery in Mali.
Malian anti-slavery organisation Temedt has reported cases of slave masters profiting from the chaos of the past year to recapture former slaves, including at least 18 children seized from one village last September. Raichatou believes this is the fate that may have befallen her brother, Ismagir Ag Touka.
Although slavery is a crime against humanity in Mali's constitution, it remains deeply ingrained in the culture. For centuries, descent-based slavery – where slavery is passed down through the bloodline – has resulted in "black Tamasheq" (the Tuareg's language) families in Mali's north being used as slaves by nomadic Tuareg communities. Generations of children have been considered the property of the Tuaregs from birth.
Despite the constitution, slavery is still not illegal in Mali, making it difficult for anti-slavery groups to launch criminal prosecutions.
Raichatou became a slave at the age of seven when her mother, also a slave, died. "My father could only watch on helplessly as my mother's master came to claim me and my brothers," she says. She worked as a servant for the family without pay for nearly 20 years, and was forced into a marriage with another slave whom she didn't know.
"My master only wanted me to have children so that he would have more slaves in the future. My opinion did not count. I had to live with a man I had not chosen for three years. They told me that the only way I would get to heaven was to obey my master."
In 2008, she heard about Temedt and made her bid for freedom; finally, she was reunited with her father.
"My instinct for liberty was telling me to grab every opportunity to be free, but my slave mentality was telling me the opposite" she says.
Now, Temedt's work helping liberate people has been severely restricted. Its activists cannot travel safely and security is volatile.
Efforts to bring civil compensation cases to court on behalf of escaped slaves have stalled with the collapse of Malian state institutions across the north. At least 17 slavery compensation cases that were going through the courts remain unresolved. There has been no progress on Raichatou's case. "I feel like everything we achieved has come to nothing. I have no hope," she says.
"The absence of the state has left people without recourse or protection," says Sarah Mathewson, Africa programme co-ordinator at Anti-Slavery International.
Funding for Temedt has been drying up, as donors pulled out of Mali following the coup in March 2012. A microcredit scheme for women of slave descent and a legal clinic offering advice to escapees have closed.
"Our work has ground to a halt," says Intamat Ag Inkadewane, a community organiser for Temedt, who also fled Gao. "I'm just sitting here in Bamako; I'm not working, I'm not getting paid. There are things I want to do in the north, but we have no way of knowing when we can get back there."
The recent French intervention in Mali does seem to be paying some security dividends with most of the Islamist fighters driven out of the main urban areas. But many slaves and ex-slaves say they still do not feel safe, since a new Tuareg group, the Islamic Movement for Azawad, is in control of the remote town of Kidal.
Temedt's president, Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, says he hopes its work can soon resume. Elections due in July could provide a rare window of opportunity, according to Mathewson: "People of slave descent should be consulted and represented in national and international efforts to address the crisis so this issue is not forgotten."