A severed head, a mangled leg and shredded flesh rotting in the sun: Not your typical souvenir photo, but hundreds of Malians streamed to Gao’s city hall on Saturday, the scene of an epic battle last week to see the remains of their former tormentors.
Mobile phones in hand, they wanted to record the defeat of the militants who attacked the city before rigging themselves with explosives and holing themselves up in the town hall. They died in a hail of Malian army gunfire.
“We want to see them, we want to see them dead,” one resident said, echoed by the small crowd forming in the municipal gardens.
Some of the Islamist fighters’ corpses there had started decomposing.
The stench of rotting human flesh filled the sun-soaked street, but residents pulled their T-shirts over their noses and kept coming, hoping to snap a picture of the bodies. They were undeterred by the presence of unexploded grenades.
A Malian soldier seemed surprised at the suggestion that the area should be cordoned off.
“When the al-Qaeda people were here, it was much worse, there were more dead than this. People have become used to it,” he said.
For nine months, when Mali was effectively split in two, militia from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of the main al-Qaeda franchise in the region, ruled the city.
They imposed an extreme form of Islamic law, flogging, amputating and sometimes executing violators.
“The implementation of Shariah is the path to happiness,” reads an old sign put by the Islamist militia who ruled the main city in northern Mali from April last year until French forces ousted them late last month.
The soldier did not think children would find the macabre display disturbing.
“They have grown accustomed to this. They’re curious, it’s understandable, this is a bit of an attraction,” he said.
At the foot of the city hall steps, the cleanly severed head of a bomber lies like a forgotten football. His leg is 10m away, next to the bodies of two other fighters, presumably killed by their comrades’ suicide blast.
MUJAO fighters had fled the city under the French-led advance late last month. However, they regrouped on its outskirts and infiltrated the city a few days ago to attack the Malian forces newly in control.
They laid mines outside the city hall and hunkered down inside with explosives, grenades and rifles for one of the most violent episodes of the conflict since pro-government forces reclaimed most of the country’s north last month.
The worst of fighting was on Thursday last week, when Malian soldiers fired heavy artillery and rocket-propelled grenades at the MUJAO fighters before calling the French army for help.
The last Islamist fighter in the city hall was killed on Friday morning.
According to the French military, between 15 and 20 Islamists died, four Malian soldiers and two French were wounded.
“We’re so happy to see this,” Alassane Maiga, an elegant man in his fifties, said as he joined the line to catch a glimpse of the bodies.