Monday, January 28, 2013

‘March of the Islamists’

Tristan MConnell writes:

March of the Islamists brings death and desolation in Mali

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."

In November, Ms Walet 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," Ms Walet said. 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, floggings, and stonings to death.

Groups including al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb supported and then hijacked a rebellion by Tuareg separatists last year.

When the Islamists arrived in Timbuktu, they destroyed bars, churches and government buildings.

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Within days, the Malian flag had been replaced by the black flag of jihad and armed, bearded men were patrolling the streets in long tunics and turbans.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. Walking to the bus stop, he passed a 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. Truck driver Mouctar Toure, 26, 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."

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 - and among those who suffered under the the Islamists there is no sympathy, just a desire for revenge. Another man who had his right hand amputated said he would like the chance to "do more to them than they did to me. I'd cut the flesh from their bones."


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