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People gather to greet French President Francois Hollande during his two-hour visit to Timbuktu on Saturday. Benoit Tessier / Reuters
People gather to greet French President Francois Hollande during his two-hour visit to Timbuktu on Saturday. Benoit Tessier / Reuters
Francois Hollande, France's president, is greeted in Timbuktu by people chanting "Thank you, France!" on Saturday. Benoit Tessier / Reuters
Francois Hollande, France's president, is greeted in Timbuktu by people  chanting 'Thank you, France!' on Saturday. Benoit Tessier / Reuters
Francois Hollande waves to people from his vehicle during his visit to Timbuktu six days after French forces parachuted in to liberate the fabled city from the radical Islamists occupying it. Harouna Traore / AP Photo
Francois Hollande waves to people from his vehicle during his visit to Timbuktu six days after French forces parachuted in to liberate the fabled city from the radical Islamists occupying it. Harouna Traore / AP Photo

Timbuktu erupts in song to welcome French president

Malians give the French leader a hero's welcome as a show of gratitude for French soldiers who helped liberate the ancient city from Islamist militant control.

TIMBUKTU// When the drumbeat started, it was deep and hollow like a heartbeat, thrumming up from the ground where a woman was beating a gourd upturned in a bucket of water.

In seconds, two more joined in the drumming, and dozens more behind them erupted in rhythmic handclaps, trilling their tongues and whooping with joy as song bubbled up from the crowd of brightly-clad women sitting together in the central square in Timbuktu, the remote northern Malian city taken over by extremist militias last year.

Yesterday, in this sandy main square outside the mosque, where bearded gunmen three weeks ago enforced a rule that women must be covered, where radios, television and even mobile ring tones were banned, a woman in a shining white dress sat in the middle of the group, warming up to sing a song of welcome to French president François Hollande.

It was as the sun was growing hotter and the crowds denser that Mr Hollande, the man the people call "Mali's president", drove into this square, where the Al Qaeda-linked fighters used to round people up and make them watch as they inflicted floggings as punishment. Coming from a visit to the Grand Mosque, Mr Hollande rode in a civilian car with French and Malian flags. He was surrounded by French and Malian soldiers and at least seven armoured vehicles full of soldiers, but there seemed to be little concern about security as he plunged with his entourage into the throng.

"Hollande, Hollande, Hollande!" people shouted as he clasped their hands like a rock star reaching out to the front row. His foreign affairs minister, Laurent Fabius, raised his fists triumphantly, before almost being engulfed by the crowd, his dark suit and trim white hair nearly swallowed up by a huge, kaleidoscopic hug of indigo turbans, gaudy print dresses and ringing gold bangles.

The three-week intervention spearheaded by France to drive out the motley groups of violent zealots and tribal fighters who controlled the north since April last year and were threatening to push south to the capital had its most symbolic victory here in Timbuktu. Gao, further east, was taken first and is more populous and strategic, while in the northern fort of Kidal there are reportedly now negotiations continuing between French forces and a rebel splinter group.

But the liberation of Timbuktu, with its ancient manuscripts and monuments, where tourists used to come for the music festival, or to float down the Niger river in canoes and marvel at the starry desert skies at night, was a victory that captured the international imagination.

As the woman in the shining white dress lifted her voice, men and women danced together on a blue mat in front of her, sinuous and pulsing, low to the ground in traditional robes of blue, white and gold. On the other side of the square, the imam of the ancient Sankore mosque sat in state next to its ancient, pyramid-shaped mud minaret, surveying the scene with satisfaction.

"It is one year since I danced," said Lala Cissé, garlanded in rows of beads forbidden under the extremist occupation, who joined a group of women undulating together on the other side of the square. "I feel my body. I feel free."

In the six days since French troops rolled into this mud-built town of ancient mosques and shrines, scattering the mix of radical groups who have held sway here since a violent takeover of the north in March last year, people describe a profound sense of relief that the bright clothes, soulful music and traditional dancing of their culture are once more part of their lives.

Kalima Cissé, the woman singing in the white dress, said that she had the long, gold-embroidered robe made for the celebrations of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed last year, but the town was overtaken before she had a chance to wear it. "These people are not Muslims," she said, "To be Muslim is not in the mouth, it is in the heart - and you don't need to be violent."

She used to take her unworn garment out of the cupboard and look sadly at its gorgeous fabric sometimes. "I didn't want to die without wearing my beautiful dress," she said. "I am so happy to wear this dress today, it is a big day."

However, after the president had rolled out of town again and the festivities had lulled, there was a more melancholy reality to the streets of this little town, from which thousands of people have fled. There are boarded-up doors, no electricity or telephones, little water and of course none of the tourists who used to keep this town going.

"How we are living now, it's difficult," said Abdelrahman Boujuma. "There's a problem of food, of security. People left like refugees. Life cannot be the same."

afordham@thenational.ae

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