Written by the Commanding Officer of the Long Range Reconnaissance Group (Mali), Lieutenant Colonel Meddings.
British Army secure Malian village previously occupied by Daesh Extremists
Before their arrival, there was up to a hundred Daesh fighters reported in the town of Tin Hama, a desert town of around 400 mud-built houses
“Last month the UK’s Long Range Reconnaissance Group rolled back into the UN camp in Gao, Mali, at the end of its most recent three-week patrol, covering hundreds of kilometres and riding out ten desert storms. I parked at the gate and saw them all in.
“None of us had eaten a fresh meal or washed in running water since June.
“Yet I knew every one of them would be ready to roll out of the gate again after a few days’ rest. As I saw the smiles on their faces, I was both proud and humbled — proud to command a team as dedicated and professional as this, but humbled by the difficulty of our task.
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“The fall-out of the conflict between the north-eastern and the south-western population of Mali lies at the heart of the UN mission, MINUSMA. But the effects of climate change and desertification mean central Mali is riven by inter-ethnic violence, as nomadic and sedentary groups clash over access to water and arable land. And in the south-east, the pressure from Daesh puts Malian civilians under the influence of a barbaric regime.
“MINUSMA’s role is to tackle these threats alongside Malians: working to reduce violence, police the peace agreement, and pave the way for elections. Here in the southeast, where the UK’s Long Range Reconnaissance Group (LRRG) is stationed, it focuses on protecting civilians from Daesh while the peace and democratic processes move forward.
“Recently the LRRG patrolled hundreds of kilometres from Gao to Tin Hama, a desert town of around 400 mud-built houses beside a seasonal lake. When we arrived it was nearly deserted, as a result of people fleeing from Daesh. Amputations are a common punishment and the people we spoke with lived under the threat of beatings and execution.
“Before we arrived, up to a hundred fighters were reported in the town. On our arrival, there was no sign of them. Just as a lion moving towards a watering hole pushes the hyenas away, our arrival, no doubt spotted from a distance, caused Daesh to flee. Daesh aren’t inherently strong. They are simply strong enough, and present enough, to hold power when no one else is around.
“During our time in Tin Hama life returned to normal. The local health centre opened. A wedding took place. Young people working in the nearest city travelled home to help their parents on their farm. People gradually came out to talk to us and, as days passed, women became more colourfully dressed and willing to speak. Our female infantry soldiers — amongst the first the British Army has deployed on operations like this — were able to sit and talk with the women and children to discuss life under Daesh.
“On market day Tin Hama changed. Hundreds of people travelled into the town. We patrolled amongst the shoppers and stall owners, stopping to talk, playing with children and buying fresh bread and deep-fried Malian doughnuts. Shopkeepers thanked us; on a normal market day, they would expect to be extorted by Daesh who, in an abuse of the Islamic tradition of charity, demand Zakat — or charitable taxes — from those entering or leaving the town.
“From a hilltop outside the town other soldiers watched, ready to respond should Daesh threaten or rob the traders leaving the markets. And that night we did what infantry soldiers do best: slip-on night vision goggles and quietly patrol through the darkness, surprising anyone who might seek to slip in to intimidate the residents.
“But of course, our time in Tin Hama could not be endless.
“‘It is impossible for MINUSMA to be everywhere, all the time. Even if it were, the LRRG is not supposed to stay in one place forever. It is designed to be constantly on the move. To keep the terrorists guessing where we will turn up next. To be a mobile bubble of security for the Malian people and MINUSMA’s civilian peacebuilding experts.
“So, you could say our job is not to keep the hyenas away from the watering hole every day. It is just to keep them away long enough for life to continue.”