The rebels soon figured out what was happening. From then on, when they saw civilians moving en masse, they began following and mingling among them. Then they cut the mobile-phone network lines and sent patrols to do the same in two surrounding villages.
Still, some spots got faint reception. Alou Zerbo, 43, found such a location outside town, where he called an official. Ten minutes later, a French officer called back.
"Are the rebels still there? What is their position?" he was asked across the phone. He described how the rebels were hiding in civilian homes and advised that it therefore would be hard to hit them without hitting civilians.
"He replied, ‘OK, we are going to find a way,’ " Zerbo recounted.
No civilians were killed during the air raids, which were at times so precise that charred truck shells sat just feet away from undamaged houses.
The rebels made it clear that government collaborators were considered infidels and would be killed. The rebels had set up checkpoints to try to keep civilians from leaving, but Zerbo and others began smuggling out residents with information on motorcycles through back roads.
But the information was no longer as fresh or regular. The bombings slowed.
Then Doumbia acted. "I realized that I should not just sit with my arms crossed and do nothing," he said.
Sneaking out of town on a motorcycle, he returned later that evening, Jan. 16, with a satellite phone. From his house, he maintained regular contact with France’s command post in Markala, nearly 90 miles south.
That night and the following morning, the bombing was more intense.
The rebels then began bickering among themselves. Shots were fired in the air, angrily. That evening, their trucks began speeding north, lights off, into the night.
Diakite, the mayor, said Doumbia’s satellite phone reports were key for the air operation.
The rebels had numbered roughly 250 to 300, and they came with nearly 60 vehicles. According to Diakite, 33 of those vehicles were destroyed: nine in Diabaly and the rest as they sped from the town that had refused to welcome them.
Through his window, Doumbia said, he’d heard a rebel speaking on a satellite phone before the final bombardment. "We’ve lost many men, 47," he thought he heard the rebel say in the language of the ethnic Tuareg, which Doumbia understands.
"They tried to be nice to be people. They said they are just here to preach Islam," Zerbo said.
"We told them we are Muslims already, so if it is just about Islam, please leave and let us be," he said.