Malians tell of jihadi horror as French push on
TIMBUKTU: France says it has carried out air strikes near Kidal, the last bastion of armed extremists in Mali's desert north, as residents of Gao, the largest town previously held by the Islamists, spoke of their resistance to its brutal occupation.
An army spokesman said 30 warplanes had bombed training and logistics centres run by Islamist extremists overnight on Sunday in the Tessalit area north of Kidal, where French troops took the airport on Wednesday and have been working to secure the town itself.
It was when they started amputating people's hands and feet in public that the people's shock and panic set in.Ibrahim Abdoulaye, community leader
Residents said French and Chadian soldiers had patrolled the northeastern town for the first time on Saturday as the rest of the country feted the French President, Francois Hollande on his visit.
Relief ... French troops patrol in the streets of Gao on Sunday. Photo: AFP
In Gao, residents bitterly recalled how they tried to resist the Jihadist occupation.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which seized Gao in the chaotic aftermath of a March 22 military coup, ruled it for months with a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.
The northeastern city is still dotted with black signs with white lettering posted by occupiers, telling residents sharia is "the road to happiness" and "to heaven", though locals have begun to repaint these since French and Malian troops arrived on January 26.
Freedom ... women at the market in Gao no longer have to wear the full veil enforced by the Islamists. Photo: AFP
Gao erupted into violent anti-Islamist protests in May and June, leaving one person dead and many injured, and residents organised neighbourhood patrols to try to protect themselves against the occupiers.
But they could not match the al-Qaeda-linked group's Kalashnikovs and other weapons. Or their cash, which the group – implicated in drug trafficking – had in abundance, buying them a vast network of questionable informers who helped implement a brutal system of justice.
"There were patrols criss-crossing the city 24 hours a day and informants who reported the smallest gesture. As soon as you lit up a cigarette, the Islamic police came to take you away," said Youssouf Issaka, a teacher.
The Islamists cut off Algalass Moutkel-Warata's right hand on December 30 after someone reported he had stolen a mattress.
"I had my hand cut off on the basis of a single accusation," said Mr Moutkel-Warata, sitting on an old mat on the floor of a run-down building on the outskirts of the city.
"It was a regime of bloodthirsty terrorists."
"It was when they started amputating people's hands and feet in public that the people's shock and panic set in," said Ibrahim Abdoulaye, a community leader.
In August, several hundred angry protesters managed to stop the extremists cutting off the hand of an accused thief, storming into the central square where the sentence was to be carried out.
The accused was a young MUJAO recruit who had allegedly stolen weapons to resell them.
A radio journalist who reported on the incident, Abdoul Malick Maiga, was beaten so badly by Islamists that he had to be taken to hospital.
Moussa Boureima Yero ran a neighbourhood patrol that tried to protect residents from the extremists' abuses.
"One night, we stopped them from destroying a private villa. They fired into the crowd and killed one of our comrades, and wounded two others," he remembered.
"We don't know where we got that determination, that courage."
But their resistance was short-lived.
"It faded after a few months," Mr Yero said.
Clubs and sticks were no match for MUJAO's "sophisticated heavy weapons", he said.
Women, who were forced to wear full veils in public, found their own forms of resistance.
Agaichatou, a mother of six in her 40s, says she tried to exploit the Islamists' prudery to go about her daily life.
"One day I was doing laundry by the river and they told me it was forbidden. So I took off my clothes and stood in front of them naked, and they ran away," she says.
"After that, lots of women used that weapon to continue washing by the river."
Religious leaders also fought MUJAO's extremism.
"The ulema (Muslim scholars) never approved of their actions and clearly condemned this version of sharia, which isn't true to the Koran," said Ismael Maega, a teacher at a local madrassa, or Koranic school.
"But the citizens didn't have enough strength or means to defend themselves. It was the law of the strongest."