GAO, Mali — Mali is not Afghanistan — at least not yet.
Seven years after the end of Canada’s Afghan combat mission, Canadian military helicopters are taking flight again, this time in Africa, where they will spend the next year evacuating injured peacekeepers and transporting goods and supplies to UN positions across this destitute West African nation.
Few of the 250 troops who are flying and maintaining those aircraft will ever interact with the locals, or even set foot outside their dusty, sweltering United Nations base, known as Camp Castor.
Wiesje Elfferich has spent the last three years — an astonishingly long time in a place where most soldiers stay just four months before heading home — meeting average Malians as the civilian adviser to the Dutch long-range patrol teams based in Gao, a role similar to one she played in Afghanistan.
The difference between the two missions, she says prior to heading off to the eastern city of Kidal for another patrol, is the history of violence and war in each country.
“In Afghanistan, everyone below the age of 40 only knows the culture and the mindset of violence,” Elfferich says as she sits in the shade of some camouflage netting.
“It’s not because of the Afghans, it’s because of their situation.”
Compare that with Mali, she says, which was considered a model of stability for African nations until a rebellion in the north and a coup in the capital, both in 2012, plunged the country into its current state of turmoil.
“They had a traditional culture of hospitality, which is very strong among the Malians and still exists,” she says. “And if they manage to maintain it and not let it become overrun in their brains by a culture of violence, then they will get out of this current situation.”
It’s an assessment that is echoed by others such as Thierno Diallo of Mercy Corps, a non-governmental organization that receives funding from Canada to promote dialogue between women in different communities in Mali.
Unless the real reasons for insecurity in Mali are addressed, however — including rampant poverty and lack of opportunity — the fear is that the current cycle of violence gripping the country will continue.
Elfferich says she has seen substantive progress in Gao, where the local government has worked hard to provide services and people are starting to return from other parts of the country after fleeing for various reasons.
Yet Diallo recalled a recent meeting with a group of women who complained about the lack of jobs and services, including schools and health care, and where many young men have turned to banditry and fighting.
“My question was: ‘How about the security situation?’” he said.
“And all of them, I could see their eyes opening, and they said: ‘We have lived with so much fighting that it’s become almost the norm.’ Which is very bad, it’s very wrong. But the situation has reached that level.”
The Dutch long-range patrol team is one of the few Western units in Mali conducting patrols beyond the safety of the fortified walls of a UN base.
And unlike the Germans, who drive around in heavily armoured vehicles, the Dutch make a point of interacting with the locals by using open-topped trucks and playing with children and talking to local leaders.
“We can see that they appreciate our way of conducting operations,” says Major Nico Teerds, commander of the Dutch long-range reconnaissance patrol team task group.
“The open mind, the open vehicles. And that gives us, and also the people, a little bit of trust. So they are willing to talk with us.”
But the Dutch can only cover so much ground, and Teerds says there needs to be constant contact with the population — an ongoing challenge in part because the UN and Malian military don’t have the resources.
“We need to gain their support by being there a lot of times, not only once, but day after day, week after week,” he says, adding that his force tries to set an example for the local security forces.
But the Malian military is notoriously weak, and the state has struggled to exert its influence in much of the country beyond the capital Bamako and the west.
Despite Mali’s reputation for hosting the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world, Teerds said the Dutch have not been attacked over the last two years.
The Netherlands, which will withdraw its full contingent next May, has lost five peacekeepers in Mali, but three were killed in a training accident with a mortar, while the other two died in a helicopter crash caused by mechanical failure.
The Dutch have been relying on German and Belgian helicopters to provide emergency medical support if they get into trouble — a job the Canadians will take over when they start flying at the beginning of August.
With the Germans and Belgians set to end their flights on Saturday, there will be a gap of about one month that the UN plans to temporarily fill with a civilian helicopter that, unlike most others, can operate at night.
Some wonder why the Germans could not stay longer — and why the Canadians couldn’t arrive earlier.
Lt.-Col. Sebastian Koehler, commander of the German and Belgian helicopter detachment, said there was no avoiding the gap because of the limited amount of space at the UN helicopter base in Gao.
“It’s not that the Canadians are not quick enough to come in and replace us, it’s just a matter of physics, because the space available here at Camp Castor is very limited,” Koehler said.
“And that’s actually also the reason why we have already redeployed our Tiger (attack) helicopters, in order to provide space for the Canadian helicopters.”
The gap shouldn’t cause problems for the Dutch thanks to the UN helicopter, says Teerds, though he adds: “I’m looking forward to the Canadians coming.”