In liberated Timbuktu, new rains begin to wash away harsh rule of rebels

After months of blasphemy laws, destruction of precious monuments, and brutal punishments, locals dance at arrival of French and nature's cloudbursts.

Jerome Delay/AP
Chadian soldiers assisted by Malian gendarmes, patrol the streets of Gao, Northern Mali, Monday. French and Malian troops held a strategic bridge and the airport in the northern town of Gao on Sunday as their force also pressed toward Timbuktu, another stronghold of Islamic extremists in northern Mali, officials said.

In Timbuktu, rains out of season are a portent of hope. Rain fell unexpectedly here today in a gentle spatter on streets and houses, and on the French and Malian soldiers who drove through town and the crowds who turned out to applaud them.

“Today, to see this, I feel joy, joy,” says Adaraoui Maiga, Timbuktu’s acting mayor, who joined the procession. For the first time in nearly a year, he wore an official sash striped green, yellow, and red after the Malian flag.

Timbuktu’s liberation, following that of the city of Goa, concludes a one-two combination blow struck by French and Malian forces over the weekend against Islamist militants who overran northern Mali last year in the wake of an ethnic Tuareg rebellion.

For French commanders and Mali’s interim government, hard work still lies ahead. Islamist fighters are scattered, but may launch a guerrilla war. Meanwhile, there are schools to re-open, electricity and phone networks to restore, and state administration to rebuild.

But today at least, in Timbuktu, people are celebrating. French and Malian flags fly in union, and cries of “Vive la France!” and “Vive Mali!” ring in the streets.

The procession – part victory-lap, part signal to locals that liberation is real – meandered through the streets. Malian soldiers hopped down from their gun-trucks to mingle; the French waved from atop armored personnel carriers.

“I’m so happy today that France is here!” says Moussa Maiga, a middle-aged man watching soldiers drive by. “I don’t want them to leave.”

For now Mr. Maiga’s wish will come true. France wants to hand off to Malian and other West African troops as soon as possible, but has also pledged to stay in Mali until the country is stable.

“This rain, at this time, gives me hope that things will be put back in order,” says Inamoi Kunta, a middle-aged woman who watched troops pass from beneath a cane awning. “We were convinced the Islamists would be punished for all they made us suffer.”

Opposite her stands the abandoned headquarters of the "Commission for Ordering the Virtuous and Forbidding the Damnable" - the now-defunct morality police established here by the radicals, in the name of Islam. 

Mrs. Kunta ran afoul of them four months ago when she went to her door unveiled for a breath of air. A commission member pounced. To escape a beating with his rifle, Kunta let him take a scissors to a so-called grigri in her hair – a protective talisman or charm that Islamists deemed heretical.

Kunta got off lightly. Across the north, ad-hoc Islamist courts ordered the beating of cigarette smokers, the stoning of alleged adulterers, and the amputation of hands from those accused of stealing, according to human rights reports. 

Timbuktu suffered a different kind of violence last summer when Islamists wrecked the graves of Sufi leaders that were venerated as access points to God – a practice in some forms of Islamic mysticism that deeply conservative Muslims often call blasphemous.

Rain fell today on Timbuktu's Djingareyber cemetery, fell on graves and mausoleums busted up in the past year. As Kunta sees it, the Islamists invited downfall by daring offend “those who have always brought us good.”

Brutality, bullying, and a certain joylessness about the rebels' governing style, almost surely played a role, too. The quick collapse by Islamists as French and Malian forces bore down on the town suggests a lack of popular support.

“This is the first cigarette I’ve smoked in public in eight months,” says Cissé Al Mansour, a Timbuktu cook left jobless by crisis, taking a drag at a roadside butcher stall. Beside him, music was thumping from a stereo.

“Under the Islamists, you could never see this – people listening to music together in the open air,” he says.

Meanwhile, a butcher threw hanks of meat on the grill, and a crowd gathered. It was only a matter of time – and it was a very short time – before the girls were dancing.

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