French and Sahel soldiers step up campaign against militants

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A herder suspected to be affiliated with militants in northern Burkina Faso is searched by a French soldier during the Bourgou IV operation on November 11, 2019. (AFP)
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A French soldier indicates the presence of a potential suspect in a forest frequented by militant groups during the Bourgou IV operation in northern Burkina Faso on November 9, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 25 November 2019

French and Sahel soldiers step up campaign against militants

  • Named Bourgou IV, the mission was the first official joint ground operation between the French army and the so-called G5 Sahel force
  • In an exercise earlier this month, some 1,400 soldiers, 600 of them French, were deployed in the volatile region

ON THE MALI-BURKINA BORDER, Burkina Faso: It was the heart of the forest and there, in a marsh, lay a carpet of water lilies, their delicacy unveiled in the dawn light.
But the beauty belied the danger — the Tofa Gala forest, on Mali’s lawless border with Burkina Faso, was a haven for ruthless militants.
Guns in hand, French troops advanced on one side of the marsh, and their counterparts from Burkina Faso on the other.
Their goal: Assert control over an area where no troops had set foot for over a year.
Named Bourgou IV, the mission was the first official joint ground operation between the French army and the so-called G5 Sahel force, which pools troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
In an exercise earlier this month, some 1,400 soldiers, 600 of them French, were deployed in the volatile region.
For militants, “it’s an ideal area to hide and handle logistics,” said Thibauld Lemerle, a French colonel.
Thousands of civilians and soldiers have died in violence across the Sahel which began when armed Islamists revolted in northern Mali in 2012.
The conflict has since swept into the center of Mali and spilled into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, inflaming ethnic tensions along the way.
Many thousands have fled their homes.
Belonging to a mosaic of groups from Al-Qaeda to Daesh and Ansarul Islam, the militants have exploited ethnic divisions and a feeling of abandonment to enmesh themselves in local communities.
France has some 4,500 troops in the region and the G5 Sahel force has a projected total of 5,000 — a goal clouded by chronic funding, training and equipment problems.
They play a game of cat and mouse in this vast territory with a highly mobile enemy, able to vanish into the desert.
“They are here but hidden, we search for them but can’t find them,” said a non-commissioned officer, assault rifle in hand. “This is an impossible war.”
A detonation occurred — a warning shot from one of the Burkinabe soldiers as a local passed by.
The troops walked on. They discovered two abandoned motorbikes suspected of belonging to militants and impounded them.
They marched for hours and find nothing.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, he could be here, he could already be gone. Shooting can start without warning,” said a lieutenant who gave his name as Julien.
The soldiers marched on. Ahead, six huts stood in the blazing sun and women and children clustered beneath an acacia tree. There were no men in sight.
The French troops searched the huts in silence. One cut open a mattress while another shakes mats.
“We’re looking for means of communication and components used to make IEDs,” said Pierrick, the head of the search party, referring to roadside bombs.
The troops found a few phones and set off on their two-hour hike to get back to their vehicles.
“We can’t search like that, cutting up mattresses, see how those people were looking at us,” one private from the search party said later, going over the events of the day.
“But it’s the only way,” another private said. “Imagine if a phone were hidden in the mattress.”
A French officer explained the rationale behind the search missions. In areas under militant influence, he said, “everyone can be a potential enemy.”
Caught between a rock and a hard place, locals pay a tough price.
Malian and Burkinabe forces have several times been accused of alleged human rights abuses. French forces are told to uphold strict rules of engagement.
The French army says there are mechanisms in place during joint operations to prevent incidents.
But a French official, who declined to be named, said that their partners do not always respect the rules.
The French and Sahel armies also differ widely in terms of equipment, which has its upsides and downsides.
One French officer said that French troops trundle slowly in armored vehicles but the Sahel troops zip around on motorbikes.
A Burkinabe officer said the French security measures and loud convoys offer the militants time to escape. “It’s normal that the French never find anything when they arrive,” he said. “With our motorbikes, we’re more mobile.”
But African troops are also far more exposed. Only days earlier, two Burkinabe soldiers riding a motorbike were killed by a roadside bomb.
In total some 170 Sahel soldiers have been killed since September in presumed militant attacks, including about 40 Malian soldiers who died in a single ambush in November.
One French soldier, by comparison, has died.
Despite years of training by French forces, the Sahel armies struggle with many problems.
Captain Wendimanegde Kabore, a Burkinabe unit commander, said that securing food and water was especially difficult. On many evenings, Burkinabe troops go to their French counterparts for a ration pack.
The arduous march is lightened at times.
French intelligence intercepted a message from one of the heads of Ansarul Islam just a few kilometers from the Bourgou operation’s positions.
The army sent out 80 French soldiers in a bid to capture him, supported by drones and a Mirage 2000 warplane.
And toward the end of the same day, forces also caught wind of local informants who tip off the militants about army troops.
An armored convoy took off in a cloud of dust, arriving at the village. Three men fled and threw objects into the undergrowth. One was arrested several minutes later.
Dressed in old jogging trousers and a sports vest, he stayed quiet.
“We took a telephone. He ran away when we arrived but the inhabitants stayed put, which is suspicious,” said Julien, the lieutenant. “But we have nothing on him, so we’re going to let him go.”
About a hundred phones were confiscated over two weeks of Bourgou IV operations. Troops withdrew from the area on November 17.
Twenty-four people were killed or captured, according to the French army, and about 60 motorbikes seized.
Despite these seemingly meager returns, military chiefs said they were pleased with the results, arguing that the operation had disrupted the militants and caused many to flee.
“Not every day is a rendezvous with glory,” said Col. Raphael Bernard. “But we work together, we shake things up and we fight.”

‘We don’t want to leave’: Sikhs consider future in Afghanistan

Updated 28 February 2020

‘We don’t want to leave’: Sikhs consider future in Afghanistan

  • Decades of violence has seen them flee to India, Canada and Germany

KABUL: When Sikh community leader Hakam Cha Cha Singh leaves his Kabul home for work each day, he says goodbye to his family as if it is for the last time, unsure he will make it back home safely in a country where embattled minorities face daily prejudice, harassment and violence from militant groups.

“We used to travel in the middle of the night from one province to another,” a white-bearded Singh told Arab News. “Now when I leave home, I say goodbye to my family, telling them there is a chance I might not return home because of insecurity.”

Then he paused and added: “But still we love Afghanistan.”

Singh is part of a fast-shrinking minority in Afghanistan, thousands of members of which have fled conflict and moved to countries like India, their spiritual homeland, or Canada and Germany over the last four decades.

Although almost an entirely Muslim country, Afghanistan was home to as many as 250,000 Sikhs and Hindus before a devastating civil war in the 1990s. For centuries, Hindu and Sikh communities played a prominent role in merchant trade and moneylending in Afghanistan, although today they mostly run medicinal herb shops.

Once spread across the country, the Sikh community is now concentrated in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Ghazni and the capital Kabul.


Afghanistan was home to 250,000 Sikhs and Hindus before 1990s civil war.

Afghan Sikhs boast no more than 300 families. It has only two gurdwaras, or places of worship, one each in Jalalabad and Kabul.

In 2018, an explosion in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad killed at least 20 people, including several members of the small Sikh minority, pushing hundreds to flee the country. Among those killed was Avtar Singh Khalsa, the only Sikh candidate running in Afghanistan’s then-upcoming parliamentary election.

Many Sikhs say local Muslim hard-liners have stirred up hostility against them, and the community now requires police protection for their funeral rituals.

But while most of the Sikhs who remain in Afghanistan are wary of religious discrimination and the absence of economic opportunities, some Sikhs, especially those with land or businesses and no ties to India, say they do not plan to leave and Afghanistan remains their “motherland.”

“We have suffered a lot. Our honor, property and life have been in danger, but still, we call Afghanistan our mother, our home,” said 31 year-old Gajandar Singh Bashardost at his traditional medicinal herb shop in the once-bustling Sikh neighborhood of Karte Parwan.

“It is bad for us Sikhs, Afghanistan ... if we leave and seek asylum in India or any other place,” Bashardost said. “I do not want to give my country a bad name.”

Earlier this month, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance allocated $650,000 to renovate Hindu and Sikh temples communities across the country.

“Hindus and Sikhs love their country and despite the prejudice and discrimination do not want to leave,” said Anar Kali Honaryar, the only Sikh member of the Afghan Senate.

Zabihullah Farhang, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, said the level of discrimination and prejudice shown towards the Hindus and Sikhs compared to the past has come down.

However, he added that the government needs to do more to “protect their rights, help them with building schools, providing them health facilities, finding job opportunities and giving them opportunities in the government.”