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As Islamists Gain, Mali's Tradition Under Threat

Islamist rebels of Ansar Dine near Timbuktu, in rebel-held northern Mali, during the release of a Swiss hostage on April 24.
Romaric Ollo
AFP/Getty Images
Islamist rebels of Ansar Dine near Timbuktu, in rebel-held northern Mali, during the release of a Swiss hostage on April 24.

Hard-line Islamists in northern Mali stoned a reportedly unmarried couple to death for adultery last Sunday. Analysts worry this is growing evidence of the rebel fighters' avowed intention to impose strict Islamic law in the vast territory under their control.

Another version of the story put about by an al-Qaida-linked militant group is that the couple was married but engaging in extramarital affairs.

The Shariah killings in the remote desert town of Aguelhok have drawn outrage and condemnation. The human rights group Amnesty International called them "gruesome and horrific."

The desecration of the tombs of Sufi Muslim saints by Islamist fighters in the fabled city of Timbuktu has also been condemned. The destruction has come to symbolize the twin crises in Mali. In a matter of weeks, this once apparently stable Sahara Desert nation imploded with a rebellion in the north, followed by a coup in the south.

A Rebellion Rises

Nomadic Tuareg secessionists launched the rebellion in January, demanding independence for what they call their Azawad homeland in the north.

Allies from other groups, including the regional al-Qaida franchise — known by its initials AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) — fought alongside the Tuaregs.

They captured the three strategic towns in the north: Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. The crisis was compounded by a military coup March 22 in Mali's capital, Bamako, by soldiers who accused the ousted president of not fighting the rebellion.

While Mali's politicians and soldiers dithered and bickered in Bamako, the rebels rapidly consolidated their control over a vast and poorly policed zone the size of Texas, in mainly desert northern Mali.

Within weeks the shaky alliance between the turbaned Tuareg fighters and the Islamists collapsed, and Wahabbi jihadists, such as Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, took over.

Destroyed Holy Sites

The Islamists have sidelined the Tuaregs and hijacked the insurgency, and Timbuktu is now ruled by hard-liners.

Timbuktu, the location of several UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites, is known as the City of 333 Saints. It's home to three majestic medieval mosques. It was also an ancient seat of learning and a center of Islamic studies in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The destruction, with pickaxes and other weapons, of the saints' mausoleums, revered by Sufi Muslims and many other Malians, has shocked and enraged many people.

Mali is a Muslim-majority country and practices various tolerant branches of Islam. Malians are appalled by what they say are crimes being committed in the name of their religion by jihadist fighters, who have strengthened their hold on the north since the January rebellion.

Inevitably, comparisons are being made with Afghanistan, with some dubbing Mali "Africanistan." Frequent references are made to the destruction of the giant Buddhist Bamiyan statues by the Taliban in 2001.

Fatou Bensouda, the new prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, warns that the ICC is watching Mali. She says deliberate attacks against undefended civilian buildings, which are not military objectives, are war crimes.

"This includes attacks against historical monuments, as well as destruction of buildings dedicated to religion," Bensouda says.

She has put on notice those involved in what she calls "criminal acts," saying they must "stop the destruction of these buildings now" and that her office has the authority fully to investigate.

Timbuktu's mayor, Halle Ousmane Cisse, told NPR the problems extend beyond the destruction of the tombs.

Cisse says about half the population of Timbuktu has fled the city, which is short of everything — money, food, electricity, fuel and freedom — and needs help.

"We have nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing," says the mayor, thanking those who are helping.

Helping The Displaced

Among the many who have left Timbuktu is 20-year-old Monique Kone.

At a Christian training center on the outskirts of Bamako, Kone puts displaced children through their paces in an impromptu, but energetic, game of soccer.

In areas in the north, the Islamists are meting out punishment to women they deem to be improperly dressed. They have banned public smoking, card games and children watching television and playing soccer.

More than a dozen Christian families from northern Mali have found sanctuary in a dusty compound, where women are sharing out donations of rice and other essential goods.

Tens of thousands of Muslims have also fled the besieged northern towns, across Mali's borders into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Many are still heading to the capital.

Standing on the makeshift, dirt field that serves as a soccer pitch, Kone says that just three months ago she was cowering in fear in Timbuktu, as gunfire flew back and forth when the rebels shot their way into town.

"I was so scared I was shaking," Kone says. "I was trembling with fear."

Kone's face contorts in pain as the memories flood back and her voice becomes quieter. She says she would like to head back home to the north but is too frightened.

A Leader's Plea

Mali's caretaker president, Dioncounda Traore, has just returned to Bamako after a prolonged medical absence in France. He was assaulted in May by mobs in his office.

Traore made a televised address to the nation on Sunday and promised personally to take charge of the dangerous situation in the north.

Regional leaders and the U.S. fear it has become a safe haven for what they call Islamist terrorism. Traore says it is time to "drive out the invaders."

"Together, we will liberate our country from those who're sowing destruction, desolation and pain," Traore says.

Traore also asked Malians to forgive one another and pledged to end "religious intolerance and terrorism in the north, as well as drug trafficking and insecurity."

The al Qaida-affiliated Islamists are reported to be well-funded and indulge in kidnapping, mainly of white foreigners, for mighty ransoms to boost their war chests.

Traore, however, has announced planned negotiations with the armed groups in the north.

Adam Thiam, a Malian political analyst and columnist, warns that is easier said than done.

"Dialogue with whom?" he asks.

Thiam says it will be "extremely difficult to tackle the northern issue militarily, because ... [Tuareg rebels], al-Qaida and MUJAO [an offshoot of al-Qaida] are living among the population in the three main cities in the north. So it is tricky."

Malians just want peace. Many are urging the interim government to drive the rebels out of the north and restore peace and order, saying they will not allow Mali to be divided.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.