Mali’s Timbuktu fears jihadists as France cuts troops

TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) – It has been nine years since Islamic extremists in northern Mali arrested Zahra Abdou on charges of …

TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) – It has been nine years since Islamic extremists in northern Mali arrested Zahra Abdou on charges of showing her hair and wearing an outfit they said was too tight.

Al Qaeda-linked militants who had taken control of this legendary desert center in 2012 flogged Abdou in front of a crowd of people in his neighborhood. The older women tried to stop the flogging, but the extremists prevented it.

“I received dozens of lashes in front of a large crowd and due to the pain I passed out,” he recalled. “It was a total humiliation for me. For a long time I felt ashamed in front of the people in my neighborhood ”.

The trauma still haunts her, she says. Their anxiety has risen since France announced in July that it will cut its 5,000 troops in Mali in half by 2022. After years of leading the fight against jihadists in northern Mali, the French army will close its bases in Timbuktu and other centers. from North.

Just as the Taliban have returned to power in Afghanistan, Abdou says she fears it is only a matter of time before the extremists who punished her will once again rule Timbuktu and other cities in northern Mali.

“I’m afraid the same thing will happen that happened in 2012,” he says, now 30 years old and still struggling with insomnia. “Because of this, I did not get my baccalaureate degree, I was too traumatized. I wanted to study commerce, do business.

“Even now I have pain in my foot. I think a piece of glass from that day is still lodged there, ”he says.

For centuries, Timbuktu has been a center for Islamic scholars who generally practiced a moderate form of Islam. In 2012 a new gang of extremists, many from Algeria, was established, taking advantage of the lack of presence of the Malian government in the north.

Soon, the extremists began to enforce their strict interpretation of Islamic Shariah law, whipping women like Abdou and amputating the hands of accused robbers. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mali’s militants, known as Ansar Dine, attacked historical cultural sites that they said were idolatrous, destroying ancient and prized mausoleums that were UNESCO World Heritage sites. They also banned music.

Women were required to wear a headscarf and girls were no longer taught in the same classroom as boys.

Unlike Afghanistan, the rule of extremists in northern Mali was brief: France led a military intervention just a year later that forced Ansar Dine to leave Timbuktu and other northern cities in early 2013. That same year, a woman was elected deputy to represent Timbuktu in the National Assembly of Mali.

But the Islamic extremists were never completely defeated and dispersed into the desert from where they launched dozens of attacks against the Malian army and UN peacekeepers.

Residents of Timbuktu say the militants are not far from the outskirts of the city; have seen the men with long beards inside their Toyota Hilux trucks nearby. Some of the extremists come to town to shop at the market, they say, but no one dares to report them for fear of reprisals.

When France withdraws its troops from Timbuktu, the city will continue to be protected by Malian forces and some 800 UN peacekeepers, mostly from Burkina Faso. French bases in Tessalit and Kidal will also be closed, the French army said.

The mayor of Timbuktu, Aboubacrine Cissé, does not hide his displeasure at France’s decision to end its Operation Barkhane.

“Our defense and security forces are overwhelmed by the security situation in Timbuktu and the withdrawal of allied forces like Barkhane will leave a void that any armed group can fill,” Cisse said.

In the eight years since the extremists fled into the desert, life has returned to Timbuktu almost as before. The destroyed mausoleums have been rebuilt, music has resumed, and cultural events are held again every weekend.

The imminent departure of French troops is creating fear among those in Timbuktu who have yearned for the city to regain its status as a popular international tourist destination.

For years, the city and the surrounding region hosted a popular music festival each January that attracted musicians from around the world. And before the extremists started kidnapping foreigners for ransom, hundreds of backpackers flocked here, posing for photos in front of the city’s sign, as Timbuktu is synonymous with one of the ends of the earth.

Salaha Maiga, a young promoter of a local music festival who had fostered reconciliation through cultural performances, fears that the departure from France “will spoil everything that has been rebuilt since 2012”.

“Even today, the army controls no more than 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) outside the city of Timbuktu, and 80% of the territory around Timbuktu is controlled by jihadist groups,” he says.

It is an opinion shared by Abdou, the young woman who was publicly flogged in 2012. Now married, she said she dreams of having children but is concerned about what kind of life they would have if extremists regain control of Timbuktu.

“The jihadists are already here in Timbuktu, they just don’t have the strength to rule the city,” he says. “If there are not enough military forces in Timbuktu, the extremists will definitely return.”

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Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.

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