The tension in the city of Gao is almost palpable. Liberated by French and Malian soldiers in January, it’s still threatened by jihadists. Order has been restored but most of northern Mali’s largest city lies in ruins. France 24 met residents who are learning to live freely again.
The handwritten message on the walls of Gao's Catholic Church is a poignant reminder of the past year's strife.
The large, careful lettering reads, “Les fuyeurs de l'église Catholique de Gao. Le 31 avril 2012” (Those who fled from Gao's Catholic Church. April 31, 2012).
Added, in a different colour, and in a different, more hurried, hand, “à 9h50min” (At 9:50 a.m.).
Outside, the garden is strewn with rocks. Except they're not rocks, they're chunks of concrete, what remains of the Church's cross. Islamist extremists pulled it down from the roof. Then they ground it down to unrecognisable fragments.
Few, if any, of Gao's Christian community have dared to return. The church's janitor, a Muslim, has hidden some Bibles and crosses for the moment they do come back.
That possibility seems a long way off. The memories of Islamist rule are still fresh. The sand of Independence Square is still scorched black where jihadists burned cigarettes and alcohol. Renamed Sharia Square, this is the place where floggings and savage amputations were carried out in public.
For much of last year, Gao lived under the control of the Islamists of the MUJAO and Ansar Dine. They still cast a long shadow. No one really knows where their sympathisers have gone; fear that isolated groups will make new incursions into the town for reprisal attacks is rife.
The black Salafist signs may have been painted over, but their message is still visible under the vibrant colours of the liberating armies: France, Niger, Chad. Mali.
Locals know that Mali's army, under-equipped and poorly trained, is unable to take charge of the next step. Many are apprehensive at the prospect of a French withdrawal. “Who's to say the Islamists won't come back when the French leave?” one local village elder says.
Realism, too, means few expect much from the local government. Only slowly returning from exile, the official infrastructure is in tatters.
The town hall lies in ruins. French air-raids, targeting Islamist fighters inside, left a gaping hole in the mayor’s office. A backpack lays torn open inside, pills and syringes spilling out: the jihadists' medical supplies. In the nearby courthouse, the smell of death is still strong, blood staining the stairs; a ragged boot is all that remains of one jihadist.
France 24's reporters Roméo Langlois, Khalil Béchir and Luke Brown visit Gao to find out what life was like under the Islamists – and how the people are trying to piece back together their lives and their town.
Don't miss The France 24 Debate on restoring order in Mali.