Since France began its military operation, the Islamists have retreated from three small towns in central Mali: Diabaly, Konna and Douentza.
For the first time on Saturday, Malian authorities opened the town of Konna to reporters. Although in most places Malians have applauded the arrival of the French, the town of Konna, built around a single, hard-top road, provides a counterweight and reveals the human toll of the operation.
Konna’s mayor had earlier said that 11 civilians were killed during the airstrikes. Among them were four relatives of Souleymane Maiga, a young, 20-something man who ran for cover on Jan. 11, the first day of the airstrikes.
He hid between two mud walls separating his compound from that of his neighbor. His aunt, and the four children, including several young girls that were with her, abandoned the pot on an open flame where they were preparing the midday meal and ran inside the house.
French combat helicopters, looking for rebels, strafed the buildings made of nothing more than mud mixed with straw.
‘‘The women were preparing food right here in the shade of this tree, when we heard the noise made by the aircraft. I ran and threw myself between the two walls over there,’’ said Maiga. ‘‘After it was over, I went to the house, and when I opened the door, I saw that they were dead. Of the five people inside, only one survived. A toddler. The bodies were one on top of the other. The toddler was crying. The bullets had pierced the door. I tried to find their pulses, but they were gone. I realized it was over. I picked up the child and took him to a relative’s house in town.’’
The zinc door of the modest house is pockmarked by bullet holes, some several inches wide. If you close it behind you, they let in jets of light, which illuminate the unlit interior. The can of tomato paste that the women had just opened in order to make a sauce served over rice, still sits where they left it. It had been partially opened, and now the tomato paste inside has spoiled.
Larson reported from Sevare, Mali. Jamey Keaten in Dakar, Senegal; Baba Ahmed in Konna, Mali; and Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast contributed to this report.