The following report is from David Brooks, who is embedded with French troops on the front lines in Mali.
NIONI, MALI — It’s the morning of January 20th, and I am awoken to cries of “Nous nous rendons! Nous nous rendons!” (We surrender! We surrender!) Elements of the French 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade are attempting to surrender to a local shepherd.
“At first, I was scared because I see these soldiers running toward me with their weapons,” confesses Seyba Mikito, the 10-year-old shepherd the soldiers attempted to surrender to. “But then they threw their weapons at my feet and started kissing my face.”
Life is difficult for the soldiers of the 27th. Without bread, cheese and wine, the soldiers are beginning to become anxious.
“I joined the Army for the same reason anyone does,” begins sergeant Henri Martin. “I wanted a steady paycheck and the chance to look cool in my beret while smoking cigarettes. I never thought I’d end up stuck in some shithole for this long [10 days]. Nique sa mère.”
The French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian explained the situation to me on a satellite call. “Look, the plan was that if we put troops on the ground the Americans would get involved and then we could just leave. I mean they’d already sent in advisors, so we thought that was a good sign by past experience.”
“Two days after they arrived they tried to surrender to our forces,” admits le chef d’état-major of the Malian Army Ibrahim Dembele. “I told them that it was impossible to surrender to an ally, and they stomped off mumbling something about “Le Deuxieme Guerre Mondiale” and “Vichy.”
Meanwhile, Capitaine Albert de Castries, company commander of the 1st Combat Company, expressed his frustration.
“If we could just find the enemy we could surrender and get the fuck out of here, but we have the fucking Legionnaires running around the country killing insurgents and pushing the enemy further into the countryside. How are we supposed to surrender if there’s no one to surrender too?”
I ran into a company of the legionnaires after an intense firefight with insurgents in the Malian city of Diabali. I asked a platoon sergeant if he experienced the same hardships being away from France.
“Couldn’t tell you friend. I’m an American. Straight from Texas. I just got tired of killing Arabs and figured I’d give Africa a shot. Ha, that’s a double entendre there buddy. There ain't a single French soldier in the company. There were two, but they tried to surrender so we killed them.”
The French, like the Americans, have been sure to not let war distract them from more important issues such as gay marriage and the departure of famous French actor Gérard Depardieu for Russia. On January 13th, 800,000 French citizens showed up in Paris to voice their opposition to gay marriage. Said one protestor about the conflict in Mali, “We shouldn’t be intruding in other people's affairs. Oh, and no gay marriage!”
And as the sun sets on another day in Mali, Sergeant Martin looks wistfully to the future. “It's been my dream since I was a little boy in Nice to one day join the Army and surrender to a foreign force — like my father at Dien Bien Phu, and my grandfather to the German tank that drove into our garden."