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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 February 2019

The dignified defiance of Timbuktu against militant rule

Beaten, bullied and oppressed by the Islamist militants occupying their town, citizens found subtle yet heroic ways to fight back. Alice Fordham reports from Timbuktu
Malian women pose with a Malian soldier at the military base in Timbuktu. "I had to wear the same dress for 10 months," says Timbuktu resident Jumas Traore.
Malian women pose with a Malian soldier at the military base in Timbuktu. "I had to wear the same dress for 10 months," says Timbuktu resident Jumas Traore.
TIMBUKTU // Ali Al Moubarack, 70, stomps into his brother's house with a walking stick and gingerly lowers himself on to the cushions, scowling at the pain that lingers from beatings by Islamist extremists.

He was hauled into jail last year after one of the rebels ruling this desert town in northern Mali demanded to know why he was selling sheep in the market during one of the five daily prayer times, instead of going to the mosque.

Furious at the attitude of the much younger man - "They could be my sons!" - Mr Al Moubarack snapped. "I said: 'You have to stop treating people like they are animals. I am an old man, and I feel like an animal'." The Islamists promptly manacled him, put him in jail, took all his money and silver bracelets and gave him a pounding that leaves him still lame and exhausted today.

And yet, he has no regrets. Spitting with disdain as he speaks about the militants who took over his city and imposed a violent form of Sharia, he says he wanted to set an example to the people of Timbuktu that they should never be afraid of a human being.

"They told me they were powerful, that they had control of the town, that they would do whatever they wanted.

"I just looked up at the sky and told them that God exists. So they have power today, but they will lose their power."

Here in Timbuktu, liberated from its 10-month oppression after a French-led intervention, people are spilling over with stories to tell about the suffering they endured after tribal independence fighters and then Islamist radicals kicked the Malian army out and took over last March. They set up Islamic police and courts that people say were unreasonable and brutal in their enforcement of Sharia.

But through the tales of violence and humiliation, there runs a vein of resilience, fighting spirit and sass, never quite knocked out of the Timbuktuis by the bearded men with guns who patrolled the streets looking to see if a hijab had slipped or a cigarette was being sneaked in the back of a shop.

For Jumaa Traore, 50, her dislike of the men who came to town and told her how to dress was so profound that she could initially convey it only by mime. Wearing a scarlet dress - forbidden in public under the radicals' rule - swathing curves that wobbled with indignation at her treatment, she showed how she used to tiptoe along the street, her face covered, glancing behind her to see if one of the rebels was following her.

"If your veil falls even for two seconds, they say it's your fault for not taking care," she said. "I had to wear the same dress for 10 months!"

Mrs Traore belonged, before the takeover, to a women's group that used to meet at weekends, have dinner and discuss whatever issues were bothering them. That, along with other associations and meetings, was swiftly forbidden, but the network still existed and they communicated by mobile phone.

About three or four months after the extremists came to town, as women were being arrested and flogged for dressing incorrectly or socialising with men, they decided to have a protest.

"We felt very scared," she said. "We sent text messages and agreed to meet outside the Islamic police station."

More than 200 women gathered in the sandy square by the hated building at nine in the morning. "We shouted 'go out of our country, leave our town, we don't need you!'" said Mrs Traore. They carried signs saying that it was not for the radicals to tell them how to practise Islam.

The moment was exhilarating, if brief. The police pointed their guns at the protesters and the commander said that if they did not leave, they would be killed. They ran like rabbits. "The police made more pressure on us afterwards," she said, but then proudly added, "No, I don't regret it."

There were also stories of bargains, pleas and deals struck. The mayor, Halle Ousmane, said that when the town fell he met Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of the Ansar Edine extremist group, supported by Al Qaeda, who informed him that he was no longer mayor. "The world knows that the only leader in Timbuktu is Iyad Ag Ghaly," the militant said. But rather than join the exodus of thousands, Mr Ousmane decided to stay and do what he could to keep the treatment of the townspeople fair.

"It's not because I liked them," he said of his frequent meetings with the Islamist leaders to complain of particularly unfair arrests or attacks. "I risked my life to keep the townspeople safe." Often, he said, he was able to persuade the Islamist leaders that the actions of their footsoldiers - many of whom were recruited from the poor rural areas around Timbuktu - were unreasonable.

Another man, Mahamane Guby, managed to persuade the authorities to let him hold a football tournament last month. The game was frowned upon by the zealots in charge, but Mr Guby, 54, picked his target carefully - a young man in the Islamic police whose family he knew well. "He had to respect me," Mr Guby said, and he succeeded in obtaining permission for the event on certain conditions - there were to be no shorts, no women and no fighting.

After so long without fun, most of the town's young men turned up in high spirits, he said. "We showed the jihadists that the young people are here, that there is still life."

Mr Guby now faces a new challenge. As he spoke, he stood in a street where most of the shops had been ransacked by locals believing that their Arab owners had collaborated with the Arab-led occupiers. Timbuktu may now be free but much of its population has fled, the economic situation is bleak, and there is little fuel, electricity or water.

Most of the decent cars were stolen by the radicals, a crippling event in such a remote place. And the streets, neglected by an administration not much interested in civic affairs, are dirty and strewn with litter.

Mr Guby is starting with that. He, too, headed a neighbourhood association that was forbidden, and has now rapidly reformed. Every Sunday, a few dozen volunteers, rakes and brooms in hand, are setting themselves to cleaning the streets, and clearing roads blocked by sand and stones.

"The citizens are doing this to help the community," he said. "Now the jihadists have gone, we can start our work."

afordham@thenational.ae

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Updated: February 6, 2013 04:00 AM

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