West Africa - SahelReadsWeekend

Serval 2013. Cursed discovery. Algerian kerosene and Belgian helicopters

BarreraWar DiariesThreshold(BRUSSELS2) General Barrera is a bit like one of the figures of the French army. After serving in the Balkans (Bosnia, Kosovo) and in Africa (Chad, Ivory Coast), he was sent to Mali in 2013 to take charge of Operation Serval in Mali when he had just taken charge of the 3rd Mechanized Brigade (3BM). Having met him, within the framework of the IHEDN, we can say that the man exudes a certain intensity and his “War Notes” on the operation, carried out from January 2013 in Mali by the French army , take the seed. For those interested in modern operations, those which are carried out in a sort of “swords drawn”, this book is worth the detour. I remembered a few passages from it. One is particularly poignant, about child soldiers. The other two are more geopolitical on cooperation with Algeria and Belgian and Danish assistance.

A cursed discovery: the child soldier used by jihadists

« The legionnaires find a child soldier wounded by shrapnel. Taking refuge near a stone wall, under a blanket, he shivers with fever, helpless in the face of the infection of his wounds. He has been waiting for death for two to three days... A child who is probably not 15 years old. This discovery and the one that followed undoubtedly marked a turning point for the brigade's fighters. (…) We understood that day, for those who doubted it, that our adversary was not brave. » The child will be taken care of by the regiment's medical team and " Safe ".

A little later, the “legionnaires discovered in (a) cache two armed children and a black, English-speaking adult, who later admitted to being Nigerian and affiliated with Boko Haram. After kidnapping around ten children, mainly Fulani, in the Gao region, he took them to this sanctuary to educate them and make them good jihadists. (…) In the hours that followed, sappers and infantrymen discovered corpses of children in the valley, some loaded with empty canteens and sent to their death by thirsty jihadists. »

A few days later, two other child soldiers will be captured. « Like a slave, the first carried empty bottles and a bag for a group of armed jihadists, shot at very close range. » He was saved and “surprised to get out of it”. Thanks to the composure and “in legionnaire training”. “The second was injured by a sentry a few dozen meters from his bivouac. (He) sought to infiltrate the device by taking advantage of the vegetation. Superficial wound, he was treated and evacuated to Tessalit.

« These visions will cause invisible wounds in my soldiers (…). They had to spend ten days fighting under a Sahelian sun but these images haunted them, some even wondering if they had not unknowingly shot a kid who was their son's age. L'child soldier, the worst discovery of this accursed valley ! « With glazed eyes, like drug addicts, these kids were used as porters, messengers or scouts. Kidnapped in the Niger bend, some taken from their shepherd families further north, they will then be sent to Bamako to follow a reintegration program led by the UN. »

Algerian kerosene…

On several occasions in his work, the general mentions the needs for equipment, the water supply which is carried out in tight flow, the spare parts which are missing, the necessary fuel. Neighboring Algeria provided the necessary fuel on several occasions, with men going to resupply in missions called “Septenkéro” (northern kerosene). “ This delivery, repeated several times in the following weeks, is the consequence of an agreement between the two countries, affected by the same terrorism ". Means of transport (planes or helicopters) are also counted.

…and Belgian and medium Danish helicopters

On March 6, there was a (new) clash with a “katiba du Muajao”, causing several injured, Malians and French… There were two seriously injured (alpha), one Malian, one French, Brigadier-Chief Wilfried Pingaud (also read: A 4th French soldier killed in Mali east of Gao). The helicopters, a Puma and a Belgian Agusta race towards the west to recover the five wounded. (…) Our Belgian friends were engaged alongside their French allies to save lives. There is a real brotherhood of arms with the Belgian army. Their helicopter and transport plane pilots were with us. Throughout the campaign, they transported us the necessary supplies to Gao and Tessalit, sometimes taking over from our exhausted planes. On the most distant tracks, French cockades often rubbed shoulders with those of the kingdoms of Belgium and Denmark. (*) »

Comment: these needs also illustrate, even if the general does not mention it specifically, the need that there would undoubtedly have been for more assertive support from Europeans, if only in means of transport or evacuation . This question is still not resolved. And from a political point of view, one might wonder if an identical operation were to be repeated tomorrow, would the situation be significantly changed. The general's laudatory comment on the Belgian ally, rightly so, might no longer be appropriate. Given the positioning of the current Belgian government led by the liberal Charles Michel and his Minister of Defense, Steven Vandeput (N-VA), much more reluctant to engage in “European” operations (see RCA , EUNAVFOR Med), one might wonder whether such a commitment would take place today, for budgetary but also political reasons.


• "Serval operation. War notes, Mali 2013”Bernard Barrera. Editions Seuil, Human Sciences and Documents collection, May 2015, 448 pages, €21,50

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Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).