GAO, Mali — Six rifles, in my line of sight. Eleven bodies, only one (mine) female. Eleven flak jackets and helmets, slowly absorbing sweat. Eleven camp beds, mosquito nets and backpacks, hooked behind dark green seats alongside some wooden crates of ammunition. Thousands of baby wipes, as our next shower would be many days away.
This was a squad in a fearsome desert battle group trundling through the Malian steppe — soldiers of the legendary French Foreign Legion, which welcomes recruits from anywhere in the world.
They were a small part of Operation Barkhane — France’s mission to fight a terrorist insurgency in the vast stretch of land south of the Sahara known as the Sahel — in the belly of a tank-like infantry fighting vehicle.
A photographer and I were along for the ride with the soldiers, our legs entangled in polite negotiations with each other.
Rudimentary hygiene. Casual human proximity. This was the pre-coronavirus era. After a long reporting trip, during which a few coronavirus cases began to be reported in countries across Africa, I arrived home and opened my notebooks to find a time capsule, portraits of a bygone time full of body contact and shared surfaces.
A cheerful, strapping young Brazilian stroking his Nepali comrade’s cheek, teasing him in accented French for not shaving properly.
The Nepali holding the Brazilian’s gun while he fished behind his seat for some chocolate.
A precious cup of coffee shared between four men.
It was the squad’s first time in the field together, and these elite soldiers of all nations were building camaraderie.
“Come here, baby,” the Brazilian said to his assault rifle, hoisting it up through the hatch in the roof and aiming it at the horizon for what he and everyone called Les G.A.T.s — the French acronym for Armed Terrorist Group. A Hungarian sergeant held the Brazilian’s leg steady as he got his balance.
Standing in the hatch was the one opportunity in our four-day journey for a little privacy, or what we might now call social distancing. My turn to stick my torso up — while my legs stayed down below — coincided with that of the Nepali soldier, almost totally concealed in desert battle uniform, looking for G.A.T.s through his gun sights.
This soldier, who under the rules of the trip can be identified only as Private Binod, turned out to be a Hindu-Buddhist. He preferred Buddhism, but ate a lot of meat, so didn’t think of himself as a very good follower of Buddha.
Buddha said “not to kill, not to make war,” the soldier said, looking out at the savanna. This was his second week of his first trip to Africa.
If he spotted someone with a weapon, he was under instructions to tell his sergeant, and the information was passed up the chain of command until someone, with help from two scouts from the Malian army, decided whether it was friend or enemy. If enemy, Pvt. Binod could get the order to kill.
In the vehicle, down below, soldiers lent out precious sunglasses, shook electrolytes into each others’ water bottles, helped buckle helmets.
Hailing from six countries, they had few shared cultural reference points — few TV shows they could reminisce about together, no dishes from back home they all missed.
Their common ground was the Legion, and long journeys in fortresses on giant wheels, flipping over thorn trees as if they were dandelions.
The 17 cubic yards of air-conditioned, pistachio-green space was a cramped haven from the vast world outside.
A month after the trip, when the world had changed, I wondered: How are they doing this now?
The carrier’s interior must no longer be a refuge, but a weapon itself, each surface touched many times by many hands. Ration packs rooted through over and over to find the good snacks.
An intimate knowledge of the dozen or so ration packs was important. Otherwise, like me, you’d get stuck eating pork with rice and pineapple three days in a row. Not recommended.
There were some decent crackers in some of the ration packs, but interspersed with other, identical-looking atrocious ones. I have no idea how they managed to make them taste so bad.
But as we glided over trees, anthills and dry river beds, I began to become a pro, combining a ration pack with good crackers with another that had good canned cheese.
The soldiers dozed off, their lullaby the sounds of the vehicle’s movement, a symphony of happy squeaks like a child having a go on a violin.
I’ve heard legionnaires described as mercenaries, and at one time, the Legion was known as a place where anyone in trouble could have a fresh start, a new name and, after three years of service, French citizenship.
But before I’d even asked, the press officer — who kept a close eye on me throughout this journey — assured me that background checks are stringent and that the force no longer takes rapists, murderers or serious drug dealers.
Recently, Mali’s ambassador to Paris implied that the legionnaires were troublemakers — “tattooed all over” — wreaking havoc in the streets of Bamako, Mali’s capital. It was a curious observation given, as the French defense minister pointed out, that there are almost no legionnaires stationed in Bamako.
But tattoos are traditional, as is cursing — in French, Moldovan or Ukrainian, as the case may be.
The legionnaires took much better care of me than of themselves. Almost every night, they made up my own cot for me. Perhaps now I would insist on doing it myself, worrying about being infected. At the time, I felt nothing but gratitude.
They also reminded me to eat, made me tea on a tiny disposable stove, helped me find an unoccupied bathroom bush at night, and shared a precious, technically forbidden bottle of wine.
I lent the young Brazilian my camping fork to tuck into one of the three 3,700-calorie ration packs I watched him eat in a day. When he was done, he took out one of his rationed tissues and wiped it with great care before giving it back. Now, seeing everything through a viral lens, it’s a poignant memory.
After four days, a helicopter with a Danish crew roared in to drop supplies. I caught a ride out.
As we zoomed away, the carrier faded into the vast Sahel, the color of weak tea, empty but not empty. The desert is full of things you don’t see when you’re down below in a windowless vehicle, or concentrating on spotting G.A.T.s.
Houses made of stick frames with mats draped over them for walls. Little boys fetching water. Tracks, everywhere. Tiny hills, sprinkled with volcanic pebbles like confectioner’s sugar through a sieve. Goats and camels and long-horned cattle.
After four days of sun-warmed water, I’d be lying if I said the cold Coke a Dane handed me wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever drunk. A shower, an incredible luxury.
But I half wanted to stay with the legionnaires, whose voyage through the savanna continued. I’d begun to be enveloped in their camaraderie, and to understand why it’s so important to them. I’d wonder about their well-being until, a few weeks later, some of them popped up on Instagram, sending me cheery messages.
Then the French military announced that four soldiers with Operation Barkhane had tested positive. Are any of them soldiers I got to know? The statement gave no names.