BAMAKO/DAKAR, 28 January 2013 (IRIN) - Residents of Gao and Timbuktu in northern Mali expressed relief after French and Malian forces re-took the towns from Islamist militia, but said they faced an enormous task in rebuilding the cities.
The forces recaptured Timbuktu on 28 January, three days after they seized Gao to the east of Timbuktu.
Malian forces say they faced no resistance from Islamist groups in Timbuktu, most of whom had fled the city before the forces arrived. Timbuktu had been under the control of Ansar Dine which destroyed ancient shrines and artefacts in the UNESCO-listed site.
"We were like prisoners in our own town. Timbuktu has always been an Islamic city, no one can dictate to us religious precepts. I always wondered in the name of what religion these people were acting," said Timbuktu's mayor, Ousmane Hallé Maïga, thanking French and Malian forces for freeing his city.
"To impose Sharia on peaceful citizens, believers, devout Muslims - how does this happen?" He continued.
"We can heave a sigh of relief," said Aboubacar Maïga, president of Timbuktu's Youth Council of "We can smoke in the streets if we want to, women can wear what they want. We hope that our parents, who fled and are now refugees, will come back as soon as they can to pick up their lives and rebuild our beautiful city."
The Islamist groups had imposed a strict brand of Sharia, or Islamic law, in the regions under their control and amputated or flogged those accused of flouting the rules.
Over the last year many public buildings in the city have been destroyed, including schools, health clinics, ancient monuments, hotels and restaurants.
"Rebuilding will take years," said Mouna Cissé, a trader at Timbuktu market. "Timbuktu had once been a modern city - one that was open to the world," he told IRIN. "Now we can go out into the streets without being picked up by Jihadists."
Islamist militants cut the water and electricity supply several days ago, and some burned ancient manuscripts in the towns library before they fled.
"A lot of work to do"
In Gao, which had been cut off from the world for a week as its phone network was destroyed, a large crowd greeted the Malian army when it arrived. Mayor of Gao, Sadou Diallo, returning from Bamako where he had taken refuge, told reporters: "I am a happy man. I am very happy to see the land of my ancestors. I call on people here to remain vigilant, to denounce any Islamists who are still hiding in our town."
"We have a lot of work to do," said Oumar Touré, a respected elder in Gao. "The governorate was destroyed, the police and military police headquarters were bombed. We are going to have to rebuild the infrastructure from scratch for the economy to get going again," he said.
"The priority is to repair destroyed school buildings so children can start learning, and to restore damaged health centres and the hospital," he told IRIN by telephone from Gao.
Young men IRIN spoke to had different priorities: "We'll soon open up the bars where we can drink beer, dance," Modibo Ongoinba, a youth in Gao told IRIN.
Fragile humanitarian situation
Humanitarian conditions in the north are fragile, aid agencies have warned. Oxfam warned that people's access to food supplies had significantly deteriorated and with supply routes disabled, most markets closed, cash supply severely crippled, food prices rising and stocks dwindling, people are barely coping.
The military offensive has further disrupted staple food supply to Gao, which had already been hit by shortages due to the 2011-12 food crisis. Major traders are reported to have fled the town and food prices are rising, aid group Oxfam said in a statement.
"Food prices have risen by nearly 20 percent since military intervention in early January. Before the intervention a 50-kg bag of rice cost US$34. In just two weeks the price has risen to $41 and rice becomes increasingly rare," Oxfam said.
Aid agency Action against Hunger is among several that had continued to work in the north but had restricted programmes to the main cities of Ansongo, Bourem, Gao and Menaka, according to a 25th January statement.
Some 15 percent of children in Gao are acutely malnourished.
Colonel Didier Dacko, chief of Malian military operations, said they were organizing an airlift to transport medicine for the hospital and fuel for generators in the city of Gao.
Malian forces will continue to search for and rout out any militants who may have remained in the city, he said.