Trouble in Timbuktu

The Tour Guide The Butcher The Soldiers The Mayor The Displaced The Imams The Humanitarian The Griotte The Investigator Problems playing? Watch on YouTube

Trouble in Timbuktu

Northern Mali after the Islamist occupation

On 2 April 2012, Islamist militants, including some self-styled jihadists, overran the ancient desert city of Timbuktu, in northern Mali. They installed a brutal and alien form of Sharia law, involving beatings, amputations and incarceration for dress-code violations. They stayed until a French intervention force put them to flight nine months later.

Under the occupation, the already frayed state institutions, including justice, health, and education, disintegrated entirely as civil servants fled and public buildings were looted and ransacked. The same fate befell the city's banks, devastating the local economy, and its cultural heritage; mausoleums, statues and countless ancient manuscripts deemed sacrilegious by the new authorities were destroyed or damaged.

Seyou Baba Kounta is a professional tour guide. Opening this multimedia In-Depth, he takes us on a tour of Timbuktu and explains what happens when the jihadists came to town. This In-Depth also features the city’s mayor discussing the destruction of local government services, the regional army commander outlining security issues, a butcher on the economic collapse of Timbuktu, two imams discussing rival forms of Islam, and a UN official who describes key humanitarian challenges.

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The Butcher

Timbuktu has been a city of commerce since its foundation in the 12th century, when it boomed thanks to trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves.

But commerce has all but ground to a halt now, because Tuareg and Arab livestock herders have fled for fear of being accused of collaborating with the Islamists and jihadists.

Arabs also dominated other sectors of trade in Timbuktu, including wholesale shipments of staple foods and the retail sector. Now most of their shops lie looted and empty, a symptom, like the city's trashed banks and petrol stations, of the town's devastated economy.

Insecurity over the past year also increased livestock mortality; theft and culling also rose. Many herders left for neighbouring Mauritania.

Humanitarians estimate that 1.3 million people are currently in need of food assistance in northern Mali, a situation exacerbated by severe restrictions at the border with Algeria, an important source of foodstuffs.

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The Soldiers

Since the liberation of Timbuktu, the police and gendarmerie have returned to the city. The Malian army, as well as troops from regional states and France, also have a significant presence. Soon troops of the new UN peacekeeping mission will also be in place.

Still, jihadists have managed to stage several attacks and suicide bombings in what the regional army commander describes as the "asymmetric phase of the war."

An essential ingredient of shoring up security is greater and better state engagement with marginalized communities and rebellions, such as the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which currently holds much of the northern region of Kidal and, notably, the town of the same name.

Another key step is revamping an army that is poorly trained, under-resourced and, in wake of a military coup in March 2012, deeply divided. A European Union Training Mission is currently working with groups of 700 at a time to create well-organized and combat-ready battalions.

Also essential is addressing the military's human rights record, and ensuring that civilians from communities associated with rebel movements and terrorist groups are not subjected to abuses because of their suspected collaboration.

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The Mayor

Several months after French troops put an end to the occupation of Timbuktu, little is working as normal in the ancient desert city.

Banks lie empty, looted and ransacked, stifling commerce and preventing payment of salaries and pensions. Electricity is supplied for just a few hours after dark.

State institutions - whose weaknesses and corruption have long driven instability in the north – have yet to resume operations. While foreign assistance has allowed schools to reopen and the main hospital to function, most of the civil servants who fled have yet to return.

As a result, the judiciary and government offices dealing with key sectors such as agriculture, livestock, customs and city administration are at a stand-still. Most rooms in the town hall are littered with broken furniture and scorched documents. Local officials hold their meetings in the lobby and issue official documents - birth certificates and the like - from their homes. Their official vehicles are damaged beyond repair.

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The Displaced

When Wahabist Islamists took over towns like Timbuktu, they laid down the new laws: Men had all to grow beards and cut their trouser legs above the ankle. Women had to wear the veil and stay indoors most of the time. Unmarried men and women were not allowed to associate. There would be no music or dance. Secular schools would close. Violations would lead to public beatings, incarceration or worse. Anyone who disagreed was free to leave town.

Across northern Mali, around half a million people did just that. Many travelled to the capital, Bamako, to stay with friends or relatives or, if they were able to raise a bit of money, in rented accommodation.

After French troops liberated northern towns in early 2013, some of the displaced began to return.

Among the recent returnees is Ousmane Maïga, a teacher.

"We can forgive, but justice must be done. That is the price of peace and tranquility," he says.

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The Imams

Two radically different forms of Islam were among the elements brought into conflict in Timbuktu over the last year.

One of Mali's best known imams, Chérif Ousmane Madani Haidara, who received death threats and state protection after speaking out against the Islamist incursion in the north, explains that a tolerant Sufi version of Islam has existed in Mali for 1,000 years.

"But now there are two: the Wahabists are here. They don't have mausoleums and don't like to see people buried when they die, so they broke the mausoleums. It's as if they broke our heads," he said.

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The Humanitarian

The last thing northern Mali needed in 2012 was a reduction in access by aid agencies. Like much of the Sahel region, it was in the grip of a severe food crisis. Responding to urgent needs became much harder after the Islamists takeover of towns like Timbuktu.

As Fernando Arroyo, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Mali, explains, access improved significantly after the liberation by French forces, even if landmines and unexploded ordnance continue to pose problems.

Some parts of the three northern regions - Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal - are still inaccessibly to aid agencies because of fragile security conditions, and in several areas, markets remain closed and cannot reopen until security improves and the free movement of people of goods is assured.

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The Griotte

The griot, or griotte in the case of women like Fady Aldiouma Maiga, plays an important role in society across much of West Africa.

They wear many hats: praise-singer, poet, musician, historian, storyteller, peace-maker, political advisor.

When the Islamists controlled towns like Timbuktu, they prohibited griots from practicing, which meant important ceremonies marking matrimony, birth and death were deprived of one of their most important participants.

Now that the "long-beards" have gone, griots able to liven up parties once more, and deliver messages of peace, much-needed in the wake of recent hostility between Timbuktu's diverse communities: "For without peace, there is no life, no happiness, the country cannot move forward, there can be no development."

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The Human Rights Investigator

Reconciliation. It's a word one hears a lot in Mali these days. Especially in places like Timbuktu, where for centuries the shoulders of different peoples – Tuareg, Maure, Arab, Bambara, Peul, Dogon – rubbed together relatively harmoniously. "Cosmopolitan" and "tolerance" were often used when residents described the city.

Now it's different. There are few Arabs or Tuaregs to be seen on the streets. When the occupation ended, thousands went into hiding or fled, often out of Mali altogether, fearful of being attacked because of their perceived association with the hated Islamists or Jihadis.

This phenomenon is currently under investigation by the human rights sections of the new integrated UN mission in Mali.

"Such people have to be able to leave their houses and move around freely," said the section's head, Guillaume Ngefa.

"They have to be able to go to the market, to the clinic, rather than stay holed up for months for fear of reprisal."

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