Votes, Hopes, and Missing Faces

A postcard from Timbuktu.

Christian Caryl
Christian Caryl

TIMBUKTU, Mali — Just a few years ago, Timbuktu was still a popular destination for tourists. These days, by contrast, the town has the lugubrious air of many post-conflict zones around the world. White SUVs from the United Nations patrol its streets. Its citizens depend on handouts from international humanitarian organizations. The electricity supply is still spotty. The craftsmen and tour guides who used to live from the tourism trade now wait in vain for customers.

The reasons for the decline in the city’s fortunes are all too apparent. In 2011, a Tuareg-dominated separatist group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), capitalizing on an influx of weapons from Libyan arsenals after the collapse of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime, stormed across northern Mali (an area the rebels saw as a Tuareg homeland they called "Azawad"). The poorly equipped and deeply demoralized Malian Army collapsed. The outside world took relatively little notice at first — but then the MNLA’s allies, jihadi groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), set out to hijack the rebellion. In Timbuktu, they declared their own brand of sharia rule, amputating the limbs of thieves and stoning alleged adulterers.

The prospect of a new al Qaeda-dominated state in West Africa was too much for the West to bear, and in January 2013, French President Francois Hollande dispatched an expeditionary force to Mali. The French made short work of the rebels, and after just two weeks of fighting, on Jan. 27, the occupiers of Timbuktu fled into the desert. Next month, the people of the town will mark the first anniversary of liberation from separatist rule.

Yet there are still many signs of the jihadi presence. One of the first occupiers’ first acts after their takeover was to blow up a statue of an Islamic scholar who is regarded as Timbuktu’s greatest patron. The reason for the destruction, the new rulers declared, was the Quranic ban on depiction of the human form. For the same reason, they dispatched men armed with spray cans to paint over the faces on advertisements and billboards.

Some of the faces have yet to be restored, though in many cases Timbuktuans have taken symbolic revenge by covering them with posters of the candidates in this year’s parliamentary elections. The overwhelming majority of Timbuktu’s citizens consider themselves good Muslims, but most seem to prefer Mali’s imperfect electoral democracy to the rule of the black flag of al Qaeda.

The second round of that parliamentary election took place on Dec. 15. At Timbuktu’s Polling Station No. 6, the morning turnout was sparse: "More people will come later," a local election observer told me. Before casting their ballots, people stood and consulted the long list of registered voters, including pictures and biometric information, posted on a wall outside. Some of those participating were Tuaregs from the countryside, who had to travel long distances into town — in some cases 20 miles or more — in order to take part.

It’s estimated, though, that only 20 percent of Timbuktu’s Tuareg pre-war population has returned since the collapse of the Azawad regime. Many Tuaregs still refuse to return, fearing that they’ll be singled out for retaliation for the crimes committed by the MNLA and its friends during the occupation.

They may be right. Timbuktuans remain especially bitter about the jihadis’ destruction of the ancient tombs of Sufi saints. Timbuktu’s townspeople have long venerated the Sufi holy men, whose spirits they credit with healing illnesses and solving day-to-day problems.

"They just felt like doing something evil."

Ultraconservative Muslims (including the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia) condemn such practices as "un-Islamic" idolatry. By contrast, the Azawadis’ decision to burn thousands of Timbuktu’s precious Islamic manuscripts — some of which date back to the 8th century — had no apparent basis in Islamist ideology: "They just felt like doing something evil," says Abdullah Cissé, a spokesman for Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Islamic Studies Center. He says that it was jihadi payback for the French intervention, which had just begun at the time.

Everyone in Timbuktu seems to have a story about harsh treatment meted out to a family member by the overzealous outsiders. One elderly man was whipped for smoking in the marketplace. Timbuktu’s women, who have no tradition of wearing the all-encompassing, Saudi-style hijab, often ran into trouble for forgetting to cover up. Timbuktu’s mayor, Halle Ousmane Cissé, says that his daughter was thrown into jail for a day because she went outside the house one morning to dump some water without covering her head.

The mayor was one of many Timbuktuans who opted to stay in the town during the 11-month occupation — a decision that has exposed him to charges of "collaboration" from officials in Bamako, the national capital far to the south. The mayor, who was stripped of his position by the separatist government, insists that he stayed in order to do what he could help his fellow townspeople get by. For example, he set up a system for covertly issuing official birth certificates for babies born during the Azawad period — thus allowing their parents to apply for crucial documents once the Malian government re-extended its writ to the area.

Yet there remains the uncomfortable fact that some Timbuktuans did collaborate — perhaps out of religious fervor, but probably more often as an expression of the long-standing grievances held by the people of the northern part of Mali against the government in the south. The north has spent the past half-century of independence waiting for even the most basic level of infrastructure and public services. (To this day, there is still no paved road that connects Timbuktu with the rest of the country.)

"The jihadis said, ‘Stop. If you aren’t here to talk with us about religion, then get out.’"

The mayor stresses that he firmly expressed his opposition to the Islamists on the two occasions they summoned him to their headquarters. He says he told them that the people of the town would never join them, especially if the outsiders continued to impose their views with force. At the same time, he admits that he hardly views the far-away central government with approval, either: "I told them, ‘If your movement is against Bamako because the south is more developed than the north, then I agree with you,’" he recalls. "The jihadis said, ‘Stop. If you aren’t here to talk with us about religion, then get out.’"

Today Timbuktu is free again, but lingering insecurity still haunts the north. On Saturday, Dec. 14, the day before the election, there was news that a jihadi group had set off a suicide car bomb in the northern city of Kidal, killing two U.N. peacekeepers. Such news is hardly calculated to allay the fears of tourists considering a trip to Mali’s Wild North. And as long as matters stay that way, the town’s post-occupation purgatory is unlikely to come to an end.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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