The Bundeswehr is sending hundreds of its soldiers to the dangerous northern region of Mali. They will support a UN peacekeeping mission in an area fraught by conflict between Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels.
The German cabinet has decided to deploy the soliders to support the UN's peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA. Currently only ten German soliders are involved in the mission, but based at the headquarters in the capital, Bamako, in the south of the country, rather than in the more dangerous northern region. Those heading to Mali for the mission will be deployed to the north eastern city of Gao, where Dutch soldiers on the mission are stationed.
Their main task will be to assess the situation in the region through patrols and small drones, as well as monitoring the peace agreement made by the government and rebel groups in July last year. Bundeswehr soldiers will not be involved in direct attacks against rebels and Islamists - that task is left to France. But Hans-Peter Bartels, Germany's parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, says the deployment is "currently the most dangerous UN mission," describing it as just as dangerous as the combat mission in Afghanistan. More than 70 UN soldiers have been killed in northern Mali in the last three years.
Yet just a few years ago the area was a popular tourist destination. Holiday makers flocked to watch sunsets over 'La Dune Rose,' known locally as Koima, the stunning red sand dunes rising above the city of Gao.
Nowadays tourists no longer dare to visit the desert city in northern Mali. "If you venture more than 15 kilometers (nine miles) out of town, you can be sure that you'll be attacked by armed men or gangs," said Ibrahim Maiga from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Senegal. Two weeks ago he travelled to Gao on business. "The local population can no longer get around freely," he told DW.
Unicef, the UN's children's agency, says education is also suffering. More than 380,000 children in northern Mali cannot attend school.
One in six schools in the region has closed, many of them more than three years ago. In the Kidal region, around 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Gao, almost 80 percent of schools are shut. The buildings were destroyed, looted or occupied during fighting. Many teachers have fled the region or have stopped showing up to class out of fear for their safety. For children too, the journey to school is dangerous. Many parents keep their children at home due to the risk of landmines.
Islamists conquer the north
In Spring 2012, Tuareg rebels and Islamist militias used the power vacuum in the wake of a military coup in the south of Mali to bring more regions in the north under their control. For decades, Tuareg representatives have called for greater autonomy in the region, which they call Azawad.
But after gaining ground, the Islamist groups drove the Tuareg rebels out of most of the cities in the area. When the jihadists started moving south at the start of 2013, the French army stepped in, quickly succeding in pushing back Islamist fighters.
To relieve French troops, two international deployments were organized. Their goal was to stabilize the desert region. Around 200 German Bundeswehr soldiers took part in an EU training mission for Malian troops in the comparatively quiet south of the country. The newly deployed Bundeswehr soldiers will join the more dangerous MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali's north.
Desert region out of state control
The area around Gao and Kidal is a lawless hotspot for the smuggling of drugs from South America to Europe. This provides many armed groups with a lucrative source of income and is a serious challenge for lawmakers. "We just cannot manage security in the region on our own. We need an international coalition," a vice president of Mali's parliament, Amadou Thiam, told DW in a recent interview.
In May 2015, the Malian government, international mediators and some armed groups signed a peace agreement after several delays. It calls on all groups to recognize the government in Bamako, but also awards more rights to the country's north. The strict separation of religion and state was also a condition of the deal.
Peace process threatened by islamists
However, the different islamist militias, which continue to make the country unsafe, did not take part in the peace process. From an early stage, Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of the Islamist terror group Ansar Dine, made it clear that he wanted to fight, not to talk. "There are a lot of terrorist groups trying to hinder the peace process," outgoing MINUSMA chief Mongi Hamdi told DW at the end of November.
He was speaking after terrorists attacked a luxury hotel in Bamako, taking 170 hostages on November 20, 2015. Two jihadist groups,al-Qaida in the Maghreb and al-Murabitoun ("the watchmen"), claimed responsibility for the raid, in which at least 20 people were killed. Since then, a state of emergency has been in place in Mali. At the end of December, the Malian government announced that this would be extended until the end of March. "The terrorist threat is shifting from the north to the south," says security expert Maiga. "There's barely an area of Mali which is immune to this threat."
High expectations of the German soldiers
A week after the attack in the Bamako hotel, terrorists attacked a UN base in Kidal. Two UN soliders from Guinea and one civilian were killed, at least 20 others injured.
During the night of December 19, around ten radical Islamist militants were killed or arrested by French troops in a fight which lasted four hours. A few days later, fighters from the jihadist group Ansar Dine in the Kidal region killed at least six members of the Tuareg rebel coalition CMA. According to the Islamists, these were traitors who were being paid by France.
The UN soldiers are in Mali on a peacekeeping mission: they do not have a mandate to take active steps against the Islamists. Yet there are still high expectations of the German soldiers being sent to support the mission. "The German troops are more than welcome here," said outgoing MINUSMA chief Hamdi. "Especially because the German army is known around the world for its expertise, technological standards and reliability."
Additional reporting by Carole Assignon, Eric Topona, Adrian Kriesch, Jan-Philipp Scholz and Nina Werkhäuser