The Times of London
For seven months Ibadassane Walet hardly left her parents’ house. She feared the armed Islamic militants who patrolled the sand-blown streets and narrow alleys of Timbuktu, enforcing the strict Islamic laws imposed on the town when they took over last April.
Like any 20-year-old woman, she missed her friends and her school, nightclubs and dancing. Most of all, she said, she missed the music. “Before the Islamists came life was so good. We had fun. But now there is a complete lack of freedom,” she said.
In November Ibadassane fled to the capital, Bamako, clad in a long, dark dress and a veil that covered all but her eyes. She now lives with an aunt who has taken in 15 relatives in recent months who fled from the north.
“I was afraid all the time,” said Ibadassane. In the safety of Bamako, she allows her long braids to hang loose, wears jewellery again and a bright, coloured off-the-shoulder dress. “Timbuktu was like a prison,” she said.
Residents of Mali’s northern cities had good reason to fear the Islamists, who meted out brutal punishments, such as amputations and floggings, and stonings to death. Groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) supported and then hijacked a rebellion by Tuareg separatists last year, turning the northern deserts into a jihadist haven.
When the Islamists arrived in Timbuktu they destroyed government buildings, bars and churches. They looted, smashed bottles of alcohol and tore down crucifixes. Schools were closed.
Within days the Malian flag had been replaced by the black flag of jihad and armed, bearded men were patrolling the streets in long tunics and turbans.
Music and television were forbidden, as were the football matches played every evening. Women either stayed at home or were forced to cover up completely.
“Life in Timbuktu changed,” said Mohamed Traore, 41. “We were living together, Christians and Muslims, we helped each other, supported each other, even married each other.”
Malian soldiers captured by the militants were routinely executed, according to Cisse Aziz, from Gao. He sent his wife and child to Bamako as soon as the militants took over his town in March. Walking to the bus station, he passed a military barracks where, he said, the severed heads of Malian soldiers had been put on display on the wall.
Perceived criminals and traitors received awful punishments. Mouctar Toure, 26, a lorry driver, had his right hand hacked off for hiding Malian army weapons from the militants. Chanting “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest), the militants, with AK47s slung over their shoulders, tied him to a chair and fastened a rope around his wrist. For 20 excruciating minutes one of them sawed through flesh and bone with a kitchen knife until the driver’s hand fell into the dirt at his feet.
The amputation two months ago was allegedly ordered by Mr Toure’s cousin, Alou, who had become head of the Islamic police in town.
“I’ve known him since we were kids,” said Mr Toure. “He wasn’t an Islamist before but they asked for volunteers and he joined them. He became like a devil in Gao.”
Unable to work, Mr Toure now spends his days sitting by the roadside in Bamako. “I hope he is dead,” said Mr Toure of his cousin.
On Saturday French and Malian troops entered Gao after days of airstrikes and the Islamic militants are being steadily pushed from the towns they have occupied across northern Mali.
Reports have emerged of deadly reprisals by the Malian army — but among those who suffered under the draconian rule of the Islamists there is no sympathy; just a desire for revenge. “People talk about human rights for these Islamists. It’s ridiculous,” said Mr Traore.
Another man who had his right hand amputated said that he would like the chance to “do more to them than they did to me. I would cut the flesh from their bones”.