What they call Islam is not what we know is Islam
Mahalmoudou Tandina, an Islamic preacher, has tried to talk to the militants but has been ignored. photograph: trevor snapp/new york times
Dr Ibrahim Maiga has been forced to treat Islamist fighters and their victims. photograph: trevor snapp/new york times
The people of this ancient seat of learning are struggling with life under siege
When the Islamist militants came to town, Dr Ibrahim Maiga made a reluctant deal. He would do whatever they asked: take care of their wounded, treat their fevers, bandage up without complaint the women they thrashed in the street for failing to cover their heads and faces.
In return, they would allow him to keep the hospital running as he wished.
Then, one day in October, the militants called him with some unusual instructions. They told him to put together a team and bring an ambulance to a sun-baked public square by some sand dunes.
There, before a stunned crowd, the Islamist fighters carried out what they claimed was the only just sentence for theft: cutting off the thief’s hand.
As one of the fighters hacked away at the wrist of a terrified, screaming young man strapped to a chair, Dr Maiga, a veteran of grisly emergency room scenes, looked away. “I was shocked,” he said, holding his head in his hands. “But I was powerless. My job is to heal people. What could I do?”
After nearly 10 months of occupation by Islamist fighters, many of them linked with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the people of this ancient mud-walled city recounted how they had survived the upending of their tranquil lives in a place so remote its name has become a synonym for the middle of nowhere.
“Our lives were turned upside down,” Dr Maiga said. “They had guns, so whatever they asked, we did. It was useless to resist.”
It has been only a few days since French and Malian troops marched into Timbuktu after heavy airstrikes chased the militants away, part of a surprisingly rapid campaign to retake northern Mali from the militants who held it captive for months.
But while the Islamist militants have retreated to the desert, there are no illusions that they have ceased to be a threat. As American officials praised the speed of the French-led operation to recapture northern cities, they also cautioned that a lengthy campaign would be needed to root out the militants from their desert redoubts – and that it was not immediately clear who would carry out the daunting task.
“This is all being done very much on the fly,” one American official said of the intervention. “The challenge will be to keep up the pressure when the sense is to declare victory and go home.”
Here in Timbuktu, life is a long way from returning to normal. Shops owned by Arab tradesmen have been looted. Some residents have fled, a foretaste of ethnic strife that many fear will embroil Mali for years to come. Electricity and running water are available only a few hours a day. The mobile phone network remains down.
Many of the residents who left – first to escape the occupation, then to escape the French airstrikes – have no way to return.
Always remote, the city remains dangerously isolated: the dusty tracks and rivers leading here wind through forbidding scrubland territory that could still provide refuge for the Islamist fighters who melted away from the cities.
Those who remain tell stories of how they survived the long occupation: by hiding away treasured manuscripts and amulets forbidden by the Islamists, burying crates of beer in the desert, standing by as the tombs of saints they venerated were reduced to rubble, silencing their radios to the city’s famous but now forbidden music.