Malian army's 'iron fist' is no GI Jane
15 March 2013, 11:23
Gao - Dressed in sunglasses and a beige headscarf during a tour of the war-torn northern city of Gao, the Malian army's "iron fist" would not welcome the inevitable comparisons with GI Jane.
Lieutenant Colonel Nema Segara, who has risen to the rank of number two in Mali's militant-infested north - making her one of Africa's most senior female soldiers - clearly has no time for the fantasy of war films.
"This isn't Hollywood. It's not the movies," she scolds as a group of rights activists complain about the treatment of Islamist detainees.
Ridley Scott's 1997 hit film "GI Jane" tells the fictional story of the first woman to undergo training in the US Navy Special Warfare Group, and the sexism she faces during the selection procedure.
But Segara is a real-life warrior and has become something of a celebrity on the front line of the west African country's battle to flush out Islamist fighters who occupied the desert cities of the north last year.
Today Segara, known simply as Nema to millions of Malians, is looking for militant weapons caches as she makes a stop at Gao's main market, reopening after it was gutted by fire during an Islamist raid in February.
Followed by soldiers, a Malian television crew and admirers, Segara wanders between stalls as if on the campaign trail during an election. People come to see her, to salute her, to thank her.
"I ask you to be vigilant. The raid started here, that's why it burned. We do not want other attacks," she tells a woman selling meat, fish and vegetables in a vast market hall blackened by the flames.
Gao and the rest of the northern desert area comprising about 60% of Mali fell to ethnic Tuareg rebels a year ago.
But they lost control to al-Qaeda-linked radicals who imposed a brutal version of Islamic law, carrying out amputations, executions and beatings, before Mali's former colonial ruler France sent in troops and took back the cities of the north in January.
With French and African soldiers in a battle to flush out armed Islamists entrenched in the region's vast desert and northeastern mountains, the newly liberated residents of Gao are having to accept a harsh version of freedom in which many of their rights are curtailed in the name of security.
Since February's raid the people of Gao have been banned from sailing boats on the Niger river, from where the jihadists infiltrated the city.
Enforcing the strict new regime, soldiers go to the waterfront to reprimand 30 fishermen who are breaking the embargo. The fishermen say they will die if they are no longer able to work.
Segara will not divulge her age but she was born in Bamako around 50 years ago, and joined the army in 1986.
She has since trained or held army positions in France, Nigeria, the United States and Liberia before returning last year, just as the Islamist occupation began.
Female troops are not unheard of in Africa; they are thought to make up more than 30% of the Eritrean military and the Gambian army has a decorated general.
Slain Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi personal bodyguard was made up of 200 women often given the arguably patronising monicker "The Revolutionary Nuns".
But across the rest of the continent, including Mali, the sight of a gold-starred female soldier remains extremely rare.
Segara now has the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and chief of civil-military co-operation in the region.
In a sandy street near the market, dozens of women wait in line to meet and thank her.
"They are happy to be able to go out. They weren't allowed to talk to men or ride on motorbikes," Segara says.
As if to illustrate the point, she lifts a veil worn by a little girl, telling her: "You don't need this anymore."
Women the key
The people of northern Mali have told how they suffered a variety of abuses including amputations during the Islamist occupation of their cities.
Segara says women are key to Mali's chances of regaining some kind of normality as it emerges from the nightmare of the last year.
"We are here for the reconstruction of the country and it starts with women," she says.
She is not afraid to show an "iron fist", she says, before addressing human rights activists at a clinic that is serving as a makeshift holding cell for captured insurgents.
"I've heard it said that you tell the detainees they have the right to remain silent. This isn't Hollywood. It's not the movies. People have been raped, amputated. We are dealing with terrorists."
A local councillor, clearly impressed with her tough line, tells Segara she would have the support of the people if she stood for president.
"For now, we have work to do," she replies, without hesitation.
"We want to know where the weapons caches are."