TIMBUKTU, Mali – It has been nine years since Islamic extremists in northern Mali arrested Zahra Abdou accused of showing off her hair and wearing an outfit that they said was too tight.
The al-Qaeda-linked militants who had taken control of this fabulous desert center in 2012 whipped Abdou in front of a crowd of people in her neighborhood. Older women tried to stop the whipping but were prevented by the extremists.
“I got dozens of lashes in front of a large crowd and because of the pain I fainted,” she recalled. “It was a total humiliation for me. For a long time I was ashamed in front of people in my neighborhood.”
The trauma still torments her, she says. Her anxiety has increased since then France announced in July that it will halve its 5,000 troops in Mali by 2022. After years of leading the fight against jihadists in northern Mali, the French military will close its bases in Timbuktu and other northern centers.
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 again rule Timbuktu and other cities in northern Mali.
“I’m afraid the same thing will happen that happened in 2012,” she says, now 30 and still struggling with insomnia. “Because of this, I did not get my degree, I was too traumatized. I wanted to study trade, do business.
“Even now I have pain in my foot. I think a piece of glass from the one who has the day is still there, she says.
For centuries, Timbuktu has been a center for Islamic scholars who generally practiced a moderate form of Islam. In 2012, a new band was formed with extremists, many from Algeria, who took advantage of the Mali government’s lack of presence in the north.
Soon the extremists began enforcing their strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, whipping women like Abdou and amputating the hands of accused thieves. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mali’s militants, known as Ansar Dine, targeted historic cultural sites that they said were idolatry and destroyed ancient, valuable mausoleums that were UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They also banned music.
Women had to wear a veil covering their heads and girls were no longer taught in the same classroom as boys.
Unlike in Afghanistan, extremist rule in northern Mali was short – France led a military operation just a year later that forced Ansar Dine from Timbuktu and other northern cities in early 2013. In the same year, a woman was elected to represent Timbuktu in Mali’s National Assembly. .
But the Islamic extremists were never completely defeated and spread in the desert from where they launch lots of attacks on the Malian military and UN peacekeepers.
Timbuktu residents say the militants are not far from the city’s edge – they have spotted the men with long beards inside their Toyota Hilux trucks nearby. Some of the extremists come to town to shop on 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 still 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 military has said.
Timbuktu Mayor Aboubacrine Cissé does not hide his concern about 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 such as Barkhane will leave a vacuum that can be filled by any armed group,” Cisse said.
In the eight years since the extremists fled into the desert, life has returned to Timbuktu almost as before. The ruined mausoleums have been rebuilt, music has been resumed and cultural events are held every weekend.
The impending departure of French troops is creating fear among those in Timbuktu who have longed for the city to regain its status as a popular international tourist destination.
For years, the city and its surrounding region hosted a popular music festival every January that attracted musicians from around the world. And before extremists began kidnapping foreigners for ransom, hundreds of backpackers flocked here and posed for photos in front of the city sign, as Timbuktu is synonymous with one of the ends of the earth.
Salaha Maiga, a young promoter of a local music festival who has encouraged reconciliation through cultural performances, fears that the French departure “will destroy everything that has been rebuilt since 2012”.
“Even today, the military controls no more than 30 kilometers outside the city of Timbuktu, and 80% of the territory around Timbuktu is controlled by jihadist groups,” he said.
It is an opinion shared by Abdou, the young woman who was whipped in public in 2012. Now married, she said she dreams of having children but worries about the kind of life they would have if extremists regain control of Timbuktu.
“The jihadists are already here in Timbuktu, as long as they do not have the strength to run the city,” she said. “If there are not enough military forces in Timbuktu, the extremists will definitely return.”
Associated Press author Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.