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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to