Residents of Diabaly, in the Ségou region of central Mali, have returned to find their town heavily scarred from the week of heavy shelling it endured until 21 January.
Diabaly, with a population of 35,000, was briefly captured by Islamist groups on 14 January, leading to air strikes by French forces, which officially liberated it one week later. Most Islamists fled on 18 January.
Resident Mariam Sissoko was one of the first of those who had fled the fighting to return. “I no longer recognize Diabaly. Everywhere you look there are burnt-out cars and tanks, destroyed buildings. The stadium has been completely destroyed. Frontless shops have been looted,” she told IRIN.
Shelling destroyed dozens of homes and shops, as well as the principal school’s four classrooms.
On one side street in the town, civilians surveyed the burned-out wreckages of eight rebel pick-up trucks. The military camp, which the rebels used as a base, is in disarray, littered with ammunition, clothes, empty food packages and a few copies of the Koran.
Most of the dead bodies have been cleared from the streets, though one or two remain. Near the river lay the body of a man, as yet unidentified but thought to be a civilian. It is unknown how many rebels, Malian forces or civilians died in the fighting.
Aminata Kassoge, another resident, told IRIN she knew of at least three people from her neighbourhood who were killed. Some Malian soldiers injured in the fighting are recovering in the hospital in Ségou.
Children play by the riverbed where French and Malian troops who now patrol the streets have parked their armoured cars. Malian soldiers proudly display boxes of machine gun ammunition and an assortment of hand grenades left behind by the fleeing rebels.
On the other side of the gravel road is the church where the rebels left their mark, decapitating a statue of the Virgin Mary, smashing religious artefacts and flipping over wooden benches.
Local priest Father Daniel is not at home, but his 16-year-old daughter, Estelle Kouaté, shows us a room where rebels scribbled Koranic verses on the wall. She fled to a neighbour’s house when the Islamists entered the town. “They told us we'll die together and those who insisted on leaving were non-believers,” she said.
Most of the dozens of families who fled Diabaly - by bicycle, donkey, car or motorbike - to neighbouring villages Koroma and Niono or to Ségou, the first major town on the road north from the capital Bamako, have since returned.
Many of those who remained are still shaken. When armed forces bombed the rebel camp, weapon caches and vehicles, the rebels initially dug in; some took refuge in people’s homes, residents told IRIN.
Resident Cherif Moulaye told IRIN Islamists taking shelter in houses threatened to kill people if they complained. Some residents holed up at home watched as shops were looted and animals stolen.
Ségou region’s mayor stressed the need to start rebuilding; his first priority is to rebuild the school and find a temporary school in the meantime.
Roadside vendors and traders in the market have gradually returned to work, some selling their wares at inflated prices; the cost of rice is up by 27 percent, sugar by 20 percent.
There is also a severe fuel shortage because much of the fuel was looted, according to teacher Diarra Moulaye. But, while some residents reportedly sided with the rebels, others are relieved they are gone, and that the fighting is over.
Toutou Traore’s mud-brick house has been blackened in the fighting and jagged pieces of shrapnel are stuck in the wall. “The air strikes pushed back the rebels. Without them we would have been finished. Diabaly would have become a ghost town like Timbuktu or Gao,” he told IRIN.
Rising number of displaced
As fighting has continued elsewhere, the number of displaced has risen: some 7,500 Malians have fled to neighbouring countries, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 4,208 to Mauritania, 1,829 to Burkina Faso and 1,300 to Niger.
Far fewer are estimated to be freshly internally displaced: 1,479 have fled to Mopti, 1,136 to Bamako and 984 to Ségou, bringing the total number of internally displaced since 2012 to 228,920.
In Konna, 60km northeast of Mopti in central Mali, sources told UNHCR that about 5,000 people had left during fighting, but are now on their way back. The agency heard a similar pattern for Niono, in Ségou Region.
Agencies are gearing up to help the displaced, though in some areas access remains restricted.
Ibrahim Almahadi, director of social and economic protection in Ségou, looks tired sitting behind his wooden desk at the social services office. "The authorities are struggling to help the IDPs [internally displaced persons]. Now that Diabaly was retaken we’re hoping that people will return home, but we’re worrying more people will come from Douentza, Gao and Timbuktu as the fighting continues,” he told IRIN.
Two-thirds of the displaced are living with host families, who are resorting to borrowing money and food, selling goods and reducing the amount of food they eat to survive, according to the UN World Food Programme.