Timbuktu haunted by horrors of life under Islamist rule

Doctor Ibrahim Maiga is haunted by the memory of the day armed Islamists occupying Timbuktu called him to treat a man whose hand they publicly sawed off with a machete for stealing rice.

The gruesome amputation was punishment under the extremists' version of Islamic law, which they imposed for 10 months in Timbuktu and other towns under their control in northern Mali, freed a week ago by French-led troops.

"There was only one amputation in Timbuktu during the occupation," said the bespectacled doctor, who stayed in the fabled desert city, unable to abandon his patients.

"They called me and told me to bring a medical team" to a large square where the 28-year old man -- accused of stealing rice which his family had to reimburse -- was tied to a chair.

"He was conscious throughout. They sawed off his hand with a machete. It is possible they anaesthetised him, because he only started to struggle toward the end, just before his hand detached," said Maiga.

The doctor then treated the victim, who fled to Bamako shortly after the October incident.

Maiga and other residents were also forced to witness a public execution in November as terror gripped the town, threatened by harsh penalties for breaking the Islamists' rules on dress, mixing of the sexes, smoking, drinking, secular music and television.

Now, a week after French-led troops entered the ancient town to a rapturous welcome, residents are slowly rediscovering the joys of freedom.

Chatty teenager Maimouna Djite, 15, has dressed up to go out for dinner and watch "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" with friends: A simple pleasure after months of having to lower her eyes in front of the Islamists and go out fully veiled.

Near her house along a sandy avenue was the dreaded "women's prison", a former bank where a local Tuareg, "Inspector" Ahmed Mohamed Mossa, crammed a dozen women at a time into a tiny space meant for a cash machine.

"I heard them crying. They left them without water. They had to urinate right there," Maimouna said.

"The Islamists would take the girls, ask them why their heads weren't entirely covered and whip them sometimes. Even if you went out into the street with your brother they would say it was your boyfriend."

Azahara Abdou, 20, sits in the kitchen of her mud house, remembering the horrors of her own encounter with Mossa.

"A month and a half ago I was washing my clothes and took them outside to dry. Ahmed Mossa and his men came and told me I was not properly dressed," she said.

"I spent two days in the women's prison. On the second day, five of Mossa's subordinates raped me."

Abdou says her older brother was killed by the Islamists, who accused him of stealing petrol. He tried to run away and was gunned down with four bullets.

-- Kalashnikovs and brutal justice --

An ancient caravan town and centre of Islamic learning, Timbuktu is etched into the Western imagination as a byword for exotic remoteness.

Even today salt caravans ply the desert area -- mostly by camel -- and the dusty town was a popular tourist destination for those seeking to visit mosques dating back to the 14th century and ancient shrines, until the Islamist occupation.

Former tour guide Mohamed Traore, 28, is now showing journalists around symbols of the occupation in Timbuktu.

The top brass of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were often seen in town, such as Algerian Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokthar, who has since broken from the group and orchestrated the Algerian hostage siege that left at least 37 foreigners dead last month.

"You see this shop which was looted on Tuesday, Mokhtar Belmokhtar came to drink tea here sometimes," said Traore. He said the notorious one-eyed jihadist wore a black turban, while his subordinates' were the colour of "cafe au lait".

"All carried Kalashnikovs," he said, adding that when they fled in the face of the French offensive, many had ridden off on the back of donkeys.

Elsewhere, Traore points out an old inn where the Islamists carried out their judgements.

At Martyrs Square, there is the shop of a married man who was "surprised during a rendezvous with an unmarried woman. He preferred to escape to Mopti (in central Mali) because he thought he would be killed."

In the centre of town, the faces of people on billboards have been smeared over with paint "because it was haram (forbidden) to see a face on a picture."

And at the main market, there was a long list of things which were not allowed to be sold.

"Cigarettes, cameras, creams to lighten the skin, televisions, radios..." said shopper Mahal Moudou Maiga, 42. "These things were satanic to them, but not to us.

"But that was nothing compared to the time they organised the public amputation of a thief."