“The ‘bearded men’ are the new masters”: Observers in Timbuktu describe life under radical Islamic rule

The Islamic movement of Ansar Diane has marked its territory in northern Mali. Photo taken by Assan Midal in Tessalit, the capital of the Kidal region. Because it is nearly impossible to find an Internet connection in Timbuktu, very few photos showing the city since its fall have emerged. 
 
On April 1, the city of Timbuktu, in northern Mali, fell into the hands of separatist Tuareg rebels and armed Islamic groups. Five weeks later, radical Islamists seemingly rule the city alone. Our Observers say that in this short time, the new rulers have imposed their radical brand of Islam, which has profoundly changed life in Timbuktu.
 
Northern Mali, a vast desert region that rebels call the Azawad, has been cut off from the rest of the country since rebel Tuaregs from the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) and radical Islamic groups, among them the hardline Islamic movement Ansar Dine, took control of the north in early spring.
 
On May 5, the AFP reported that the terrorist organisation Islamic Al Qaeda in Maghreb (AQIM) had formed an alliance with Ansar Diane and spread through all of northern Mali. AQIM has appointed some of its top men to rule several major cities in the area, including Timbuktu, where Abou Yaya Hamamen, an Al Qaeda leader, has recently taken over as the city’s military commander. Today, Jihad fighters from foreign countries are reportedly flowing into Timbuktu to train young recruits.

“Some of the young people join the Islamist groups, because at least then, they know they will be fed”

Malik (not his real name) is a shopkeeper in Timbuktu.
 
I’m staying here for now, but the situation is extremely difficult. The MNLA rebels are barely active here anymore. The radical Islamists, on the other hand, grow in number every day, and impose their laws on us.
 
The city is very safe, very calm – almost dead – but we pay for this by being subjected to their annoying Islamic laws. Boys and girls can no longer spend time together in public. They’ve decided that when the schools re-open, they’ll separate the girls from the boys. There is no more music in the city; the sound of tendés [Tuareg drums] has disappeared. They’ve also shut off television signals. Only people with satellite dishes can still watch it. RFI [Radio France Internationale] was completely cut off for a while; they’ve only recently started letting some of their African shows get through. The city’s electricity is shut off from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. and again from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. The city’s new leaders can do whatever they want, since they’re the only ones with the means to get gas for the generators.
 
“A few days ago, the Islamists set up a training camp on the outskirts of the city”
 
Timbuktu residents are facing a severe food shortage. It’s so bad that some of the young people join the Islamist groups, because at least then they know they will be fed. A few days ago, the Islamists set up a training camp on the outskirts of the city. Many foreigners are now living there. In the streets, it’s now common to run into Nigerians, Chadians, and Arabs [Editors’ Note: The AFP noted the presence of Tunisians, Algerians and Libyans]. Sometimes I can’t even recognise what language some of them are speaking. [According to RFI, Pakistanis speaking Pashto have also arrived in Timbuktu].
 
When Islamists attacked the mausoleum on Friday [radical Islamists set fire to the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, a Sufi saint; Sufism is considered heresy by Salafists], the faithful who were used to praying at the saint’s tomb wanted to revolt. They gathered at the cemetery next door. But quickly, they realised that they were no match for men with guns.
 
I closed my shop when Timbuktu fell [on April 1]. Since then, I’ve been waiting to see what happens. Some Tuaregs would like to buy my shop from me but for now, I refuse.
 

“Forbidding us from visiting our mausoleums is like forbidding a pilgrimage to Mecca”

Amadou O. (not his real name) worked in the tourism sector in Timbuktu. He left the city Friday.
 
The ‘bearded men’ are the new masters of the Azawad region. The MNLA are in second place.
 
What convinced me to leave the city was the mausoleum’s destruction. Would true Muslims do such a thing? I used to go visit it every Friday, since my parents are buried in the cemetery next door. I had taught my children to respect this tradition. Forbidding us from visiting our mausoleums is like forbidding a pilgrimage to Mecca [which is one of the five pillars of Islam].
 
It’s very difficult for the population to rebel. The city’s residents are profoundly shocked by what’s going on, and for now, they’re completely stunned. Economically, the city is at a standstill. The fighters who control the city know nothing about economics and commerce. [The Islamist groups import food into the city, which they then distribute to the population]. They’re used to making easy money through all sorts of illegal dealings. The city’s residents, used to earning a living through honest work, are holding their breaths to see what will happen now.
 

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