Traders and shoppers are haggling loudly over prices in Gao's covered market. Near the entrance, butchers are selling freshly slaughtered goat. Further down, there is fish for sale. The last catch from Niger was a good one and the smell of fresh fish pervades the air. Aichata Keita is making her daily rounds in her capacity as head of Goa's women fish vendors. She is not only pleased with the day's stock, but also with developments in Gao generally.
"Things have been getting better since the armies from France and Chad arrived. Before they came, we suffered a lot. We women couldn't even leave our homes. But now things are improving," she said.
Nonetheless the former occupiers, the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have left behind visible signs of their presence. The market is a new bright yellow building, named after France's first casualty in the Mali offensive.
Lieutenant Damien Boiteux, a helicopter pilot, died from wounds he received during an attack on a column of insurgents on January 11, 2013 near the town of Konna.
Gao's market had to be rebuilt because it was completely destroyed during the fighting.
Some optimistic, others less so
Other premises are still in a dilapidated condition. The local post office is covered with bullet holes and the police station where MUJAO once had their base is in an even worse state. Aichata Keita would like to see it renovated as soon as possible. She believes Sunday's presidential elections will be an important step in the right direction for Mali. "The elections will go off well," she said optimistically. She insisted that she will, of course, be going out to vote herself. "All the other women will be voting as well," she added.
Not everybody in Gao shares Keita's optimism. Uncertainty hangs over the city of Kidal, which lies some 350 kilometers (217 miles) further to the north. "The journey there is not a popular one" said Harouna Toure, a haulage contractor who drives from Gao to Kidal and back several times a month. "Everyone's a bandit, everyone's armed," he said. But he said he's no longer afraid of criminals who stop drivers along the route to extort money. He has been forced to get used to them.
But Toure was nonetheless shocked by the latest wave of violence in Kidal. Ten days before the elections, four people were killed in fighting between residents and the MNLA. A few days later, six election officials were kidnapped in Tessalit. They were released but tensions remained high with discovery of a home-made bomb. Nobody knows what to expect next and that is why developments in Kidal are on everybody's mind in Gao.
Truce in Kidal viewed with suspicion
Life was supposed to begin to return to normal in Kidal following the signing of a truce by the interim Mali government, the MNLA and another Tuareg group, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. Under the agreement, civilian authority and the Malian army would return to the region, paving the way for the elections. But Safio Maiga, speaking to Deutsche Welle while on her way to Gao market, is unimpressed by the ceasefire sealed with the Tuareg rebels. "We believe the Malian army should simply march into Kidal and take it over," she said. Kidal may be half a day's journey away, but the young woman believes that they cannot live in peace in Gao "until Kidal has been retaken."
Harouna Toure also doubts whether negotiations with the Tuareg rebels were the right way to secure the liberation of the city. He is convinced the rebels are motivated by money more than politics. "When white people are kidnapped here, it's usually the MNLA who are involved," he said. "They then sell them on to al-Qaida and make a profit. Everybody knows that here, but nobody talks about it," he added.
Determination to vote
In his sparsely decorated office, Mamadou Adama Diallo, governor of Kidal, is receiving a steady stream of visitors. His time is short. Everybody wants to talk to him about the elections and the security situation. He is familiar with their worries. "The MNLA are just a minority, they just want to put on a show of strength," he tells them, adding that he is convinced that such a tiny group couldn't possible upset the election.
Harouna Toure shares such hopes. He is on the electoral register in Kidal and that is where he wants to cast his ballot for the next president. "I'm not the only one, lots of people want to go out and vote in Kidal," he said. He is convinced that they could do so – assuming the army is strong enough and can do its job. But the army – military sources say – is keeping a low profile at the moment. If it were to take action against the MNLA, the peace process could be in jeopardy. All Tuaregs would feel the Malian government was threatening them. But citizens of Kidal feel they have been abandoned. "We are all Malians," said Harouna Toure, "and Kidal is part of Mali."