By David Blair
The harsh reality inflicted on the people of Timbuktu by al Qaeda and its allies is betrayed by the ordeal of Azahara Abdou Maiga.
Five of the Islamists placed a gun to the 20-year-old’s head, ordered her to keep silent or be killed, and then raped her one by one.
“I did not cry out,” said Miss Maiga. “I just cried inside of me.”
For 10 months, Timbuktu endured occupation by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other extremists. This isolated city of 60,000 people in the Saharan wastes of northern Mali was compelled to discover what life would be like under al Qaeda’s rule. As such, Timbuktu became the unlikely test bed for the world that Osama bin Laden’s followers wish to create.
That era, which began with AQIM’s capture of the city last March, ended a week ago when French paratroopers and helicopter gunships forced them to flee Timbuktu. In the aftermath, the full story of a brutal occupation is now beginning to emerge.
Perhaps inevitably, the women of Timbuktu were singled out for special persecution. Miss Maiga committed two offenses in Islamist eyes: she sometimes failed to cover her face when venturing out. Most heinously of all, she carried pictures of Western pop stars, notably Celine Dion, on her mobile phone.
The latter crime was discovered by four Islamist gunmen who stopped her in the street last November. When they saw the offending images, they beat her with a whip made from camel skin.
“I did not count how many times they hit me,” she said.
From then on, they kept track of her movements and watched the home that she shares with her parents and siblings.
In late November, she ventured outside to hang some laundry—and a gunman noticed she was apparently unveiled.
She was immediately arrested and taken to a large sand-colored building in the city center that AQIM had commandeered as its security headquarters. Timbuktu’s police station and military base were both considered too vulnerable, so the Islamists had taken over the local branch of Mali’s biggest bank, transforming its rooms into cells and interrogation centers.
Miss Maiga, terrified by the memory of her previous beating, suffered a nervous collapse.
“I had a breakdown. I lost control. There was no one to help me.”
She injured herself by kicking a glass door, covering her left leg in jagged cuts. But her guards refused to treat her, leaving her bleeding in a cell overnight.
The following day, she received some basic hospital treatment, before being returned to her cell, unable to walk. When her father came to plead for her release, he was sent away with a warning: “If you come back again, your daughter will stay here for a month and we will beat her every day.”
On the fourth night, she was taken from her cell and into a neighboring room where five men, all with their faces concealed, took turns raping her. “They put a gun at my head and they said, ‘If you say a word, you will be dead.’”
The following morning, they let her go, but the Islamists were not finished with Miss Maiga’s family. When AQIM’s gunmen fled the French assault a week ago, her half-brother, Mustapha, 35, celebrated by shouting “Vive la France!” on a street corner. A vengeful fighter shot him dead. He left a wife, Zainab, and a 4-month-old son, Yusuf.
Near where Mustapha was murdered stands a street market with a cluster of ramshackle stalls. This was AQIM’s chosen venue for public punishments.
Salaka Gikai, 25, was accused of consorting with a married man and sentenced to receive 100 lashes. The judge of the Sharia court decided to show clemency by reducing the total to 95.
Miss Gikai was then forced to squat in the dust in the middle of the market while 10 men took turns flogging her with a stick. “Everybody was there: women, children, every kind of people,” said Miss Gikai. “I had blood everywhere.”
Today, Miss Gikai and Miss Maiga can leave their homes without fear.
Yet both are indelibly marked by their ordeals. “I will never forget what they did to me,” said Miss Gikai.