A loud, screeching alarm pierced through the otherwise peaceful evening in a stretch of the Malian desert in West Africa around 7:30pm. The resting Bangladeshi soldiers -- stationed in the Saharan country as part of a UN peacekeeping mission -- sprung into action at the siren.
Within seconds, the soldiers got on their feet. The air rang heavy with the sound of thumping boots. Those tasked with the safety of this super camp in Gao hurried into a 20 by 40 feet bunker made of empty containers and sand bags and set up defenses. It took them less than 20 seconds to do so, an act perfected by training.
This correspondent -- who had gone as part of a media team visiting the peacekeepers -- was caught in the midst of the action and feared for what was about to come.
Several minutes went by as the soldiers awaited the next signal. Then the announcement came.
“Maru jhar,” the loudspeaker blared out. The two words had a calming effect.
Soldiers came out from the bunker and rushed to strategic points with guns, ammunition and took safety measures to search and detect the whole area.
Maru Jhar is a code which means the situation is stable and the soldiers should go for the next step to protect the camp.
Soon, the situation became normal.
“We need to be a hundred percent sure. This is a very risky area. We have to be on our toes all the time because anything can happen at any time. You never know when a mortar shell might come and hit you,” Lieutenant Colonel Morshed Ahmed Chowdhury told The Daily Star.
Mali is considered to be the most dangerous country for peacekeepers. In the last six years, a total of 123 soldiers have died and more than 350 have been wounded during counter-insurgency operations, according to the UN.
Gao, where the camp is located, has been among the most restive parts of the country with at least 213 incidents of violence and conflict reported in the last few years, which account for more than one fourth of all such incidents in the country.
“Statistics cannot justify the true gravity of the danger. The Mali mission is different from all others because terrorist attacks have been multidimensional and dreadful,” said Colonel M Khair Uddin, contingent commander of Bangladesh Battalion-6.
Everyone in the camp has to wear helmets and bulletproof vests all the time. Even this reporter had to put on safety equipment.
For the Malian people, the threats are almost part of a daily routine, which is compounded by an ever-deepening humanitarian crisis as violence and insecurity have escalated to unprecedented levels in parts of Mali and its neighbouring countries.
The UN Security Council established the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) on April 25, 2013 to support the local polity, help maintain security and establish stability so that the country could ease into a transitional roadmap.