SEVARE – As of early this week, the Malian army was not letting white people waving press cards into the liberated zone anymore. The Islamist rebels were not so much fighting the French/Malian advance as melting away before it, blending in with the populace – and Allah forbid that a clueless journalist stumbling around the area tempt them into blowing their cover for the sake of a kidnapping or assassination attempt. (That’s how the logic went.)
So Monday was wasted courting the Malian military. But we did get to observe two peculiar pieces of equipment in its service.
The first is an antiquated coal iron of good craftsmanship, resembling a relic of colonial times but in mint condition. We first spot it behind a half-open door on a central street in the town of Sevare, and realize only after peeking inside that the hand fanning the glowing coals belongs to a Malian paratrooper preparing to iron some uniforms.
A bunch of his fellow soldiers crowd a wire-transfer office next door, and we dare not photograph the iron and the hand that fans it: The soldiers are jumpy about such things because, since the start of the rebellion, some of the photos of them taken for seemingly innocent purposes turned out to be Islamist reconnaissance that resulted in deaths.
The second is technically not army equipment, yet in a sense it is. When we approach the Mali Air Force base in Sevare via a back road pointed out by well-wishers, we see a cluster of two dozen fridges of varying sizes standing right in the dust by the base's outer wall. To the untrained eye, the agglomeration looks like a modern-art installation, a sort of a Burning Man show on world tour, but the reality turns out to be more practical: Electricity is free at the base, and plugging into the grid allows officers' wives to make a modest income producing ice for sale.
The business thrives in summer, our guide tells us, but the day is overcast, and we decide we don't want any refreshments and proceed inside the base, where we find a strong Wi-Fi signal (that we cannot access), three Soviet helicopters (one broken), and a lot of pilots who talk to us in broken Russian for two hours and say absolutely nothing. We leave without being any closer to Douentza – our coveted destination – than we were when we first saw the fridge cluster.
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