Timbuktu: ‘Anyone can be a victim in a war like this’

The jihadist experiment in governance in Mali last year amounted to ‘10 months of hell’ for the city’s inhabitants and revived age-old ethnic animosities

French soldiers in Mali on patrol at Gao's port, near the Niger river, on Thursday. The UN expressed concern over reprisal attacks against ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs in Mali, where a French-led intervention recently routed Islamist rebels. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

Behind the ornate door of what was once a chi-chi French-owned hotel lies a series of rooms which, for most of last year, comprised the Islamic court of Timbuktu. Sharia judges, drawn from the ranks of the jihadists who had taken control of this storied mud-walled city, summoned nervous suspects to where Bono and other celebrity visitors once bedded down. In a room on the first floor, dozens of papers – some neatly handwritten, others printed – detail the punishments meted out. At the bottom of each document a blue stamp reads, in French and Arabic: “Islamic Justice”.

For one couple this meant 100 lashes, because they had slept together before marriage. For another man, 10 lashes for speaking to a woman he was not related to. Another escaped having his hand amputated because the judge deemed the sum (equivalent to €85) he admitted to stealing not substantial enough to warrant it. Instead he was sentenced to 40 lashes and forced to repay the money in full.

Other cases dealt with by the court ranged from land and property disputes to family issues, including divorce. Some of the most frequent summonses relate to alleged sorcery; a chest of drawers contains talismans and amulets confiscated from those accused of magic. The use of such items – the amulets often containing tiny transcriptions of Koranic verses – has been part of Islam as it is practised in Timbuktu for centuries, but it was anathema to the turbaned fighters, many of them linked with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who swept into the town in April last year.

Fabled Timbuktu, for centuries a renowned centre of Islamic learning, was the jewel in the crown for the rabble of jihadist groups seeking to conquer northern Mali. "They liked the idea of Timbuktu because of its history and its symbolism," says Idrissa, who worked as a guide before the militants took over. "They knew that if they were here the whole world would know of them, because everyone knows Timbuktu."


In August, a spokesman for one of the groups named Ansar ud-Dine, meaning Defenders of the Faith, made their intentions clear: "We are already an Islamic state and the Taliban of Afghanistan are our model."

More than two months after a French military intervention paved the way for the Malian army to regain control of this isolated city of 60,000 people, its residents recall the jihadists' experiment in governance with a shudder. "It was 10 months of hell," says Youma Traore, a young mother who watched bearded youths beat a pregnant woman because she was not dressed in the full-face veil and black robe they demanded the women of Timbuktu wear.

“The violence against women was the worst. It was as if they hated us. I was terrified every time I left the house. I even veiled my two-year-old twin girls.”

Believing images of living things to be un-Islamic, the jihadists toppled Timbuktu’s landmark statue of Al-Farouk, a figure of local legend. They painted over the faces of people and even animals on billboards and shop fronts. They shuttered hairdressers, outlawed make-up and banned the music for which Mali is famous. As a leaflet in French found at the former Islamic court explained, the jihadists’ austere interpretation of Islam left no room for anything but what they considered the pure worship of Allah. They abhorred the tradition of venerating saints buried in Timbuktu, considering it idolatrous.

Locals looked on, aghast and fearful, as ancient tombs and shrines were reduced to rubble. A large banner that once proudly welcomed visitors to the “City of 333 Saints” was blotted out. Instead the jihadists erected signs that declared Timbuktu the “City of Sharia”.

Timbuktu's location on the edge of the Sahara has long made it vulnerable to those, including smugglers, drug traffickers and, over the past decade, militants such as AQIM, who have exploited the desert's wild, ungoverned spaces for their own ends. The ousting of Muammar Gadafy in Libya, in 2011, was to trigger a chain of events that brought jihadist rule to this city.

Tuareg mercenaries who had served under Gadafy returned home to Mali bristling with heavy weaponry looted from his arsenal. After striking a fateful bargain with jihadists, including the largely homegrown Ansar ud-Dine, the Tuareg fighters declared themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a reference to the Tuareg homeland, before going on to seize control of northern Mali. But the marriage of convenience did not last and the jihadists soon muscled aside the more secular MNLA. Before long, figures such as Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, AQIM's regional Sahel commander whose killing by Chadian forces was confirmed by the French government last month, were frequently sighted on the streets of Timbuktu.

Although many in Timbuktu are uneasy about admitting it now, the heavily bearded men who arrived talking of sharia were viewed favourably at first, because they reined in MNLA fighters. “They put a stop to the looting and the raping, and for that they were welcomed,” says Mahalmoudou Tandina, a marabout, or Islamic preacher, who later challenged the jihadists. “After a while we saw that what they were doing was not Islam as we understand it. I tried to fight them with my words, quoting the Koran, but it was no use; their minds were closed.”

Another uncomfortable truth about last year’s events challenges the notion that this was an “occupation” by mostly foreign militants. A number of those locals who did not flee jihadist rule not only cooperated with them but rose to prominent positions within their fledgling institutions.

“Timbuktu is a poor town, and the jihadists who came here had lots of money, most of it raised from smuggling and ransoms for kidnappings,” says one business owner. “Some people were prepared to turn a blind eye.”

The Islamic court's senior judge was Mohammed bin Hussain, a Timbuktu teacher known by the nickname Houka-houka, which he used to sign his judgments. Senior figures in the so-called Islamic police, who commandeered the local branch of Mali's biggest bank, transforming its rooms into cells, included several men from the town. Some Timbuktu families married their daughters off to the foreigners – among them Algerians, Mauritanians, Nigerians, and Egyptians – who came to impose their harsh version of Islam.

Because many of those who collaborated with the jihadists were Tuareg or ethnic Arab, the events of last year have revived age-old ethnic animosities. Many such residents were among those who fled the French airstrikes in January, and, as in other corners of northern Mali, there are stories of killings and arbitrary detentions of those suspected of sympathising with the jihadists.

"Those who are innocent will return but those who have done wrong know they will be punished if they do," says Moulay al-Arabi, an ethnic Arab marabout whose ancestors came to Timbuktu from Saudi Arabia two centuries ago. "I am Arab but I don't want these people back. They joined hands with people who fought their fellow Muslims. What they did was not for Allah, it was only for themselves."

With neighbourhoods all but deserted, Timbuktu has an eerie feel. Those who remain are watchful and tense following a number of recent jihadist strikes, including a suicide bombing last weekend close to the former Islamic police headquarters. "He ran at a military convoy and then exploded into a thousand pieces," says Bastos, a driver who witnessed the attack. The blast was followed by hours of fighting between Malian troops and jihadists who had infiltrated the town. Pieces of the bomber's charred flesh landed in the home of metalworker El Hadj Toure. "We thought they were gone for good but now this," Toure says sadly. "For me it seems life in Timbuktu makes no sense any more."

Sunday’s attack was the latest in a string of suicide bombings and killings claimed by AQIM and its allies in towns they had held before the French intervention. The attacks have occurred despite the presence of 4,000 French troops, along with Chadian forces and other African contingents, deployed in Timbuktu, Gao and other northern towns to support the Malian army. The militants who survived their routing in January appear to have melted away into the dunes of the Sahara where they are regrouping following the loss of key leaders, including Abou Zeid. Many in Timbuktu speak of the possibility of a drawn-out insurgency.

"This is not a classic war," sighs the town's mayor Drawi Maiga. "It is impossible to have complete security when they are fighting like guerrillas."

In the local hospital, Dr Ibrahim Maiga counts 20 people wounded in recent clashes between the army and jihadists. "I am afraid," says Maiga, who is haunted by the memory of seeing the jihadists amputate the hand of a young man accused of theft in a public square. Maiga cauterised the stump that remained. "Anyone can be a victim in a war like this."

On Monday : Mary Fitzgerald on how Timbuktu's priceless manuscripts were saved