Connect to share and comment
Gao, the largest town seized by Islamist rebels in northern Mali, also fought hard against their brutality, and residents remember the occupation bitterly now that French-led troops have reclaimed the city.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which seized Gao in the chaotic aftermath of a March 22 military coup, ruled it for months with a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia.
The northeastern city is still dotted with black signs with white lettering posted by occupiers, telling residents that sharia is "the road to happiness" and "to heaven" -- though locals have begun to repaint these since French and Malian troops arrived on January 26.
Gao erupted into violent anti-Islamist protests in May and June, leaving one person dead and many injured, and residents organised neighbourhood patrols to try to protect themselves against the occupiers.
But they could not match the Al-Qaeda-linked group's Kalashnikovs and other weapons. Or their cash, which the group -- implicated in drug trafficking -- had in abundance, buying them a vast network of questionable informers who helped implement a brutal system of justice.
"There were patrols criss-crossing the city 24 hours a day and informers who reported the smallest gesture. As soon as you lit up a cigarette, the Islamic police came to take you away," says teacher Youssouf Issaka.
The Islamists cut off Algalass Moutkel-Warata's right hand on December 30 after someone reported he had stolen a mattress.
"I had my hand cut off on the basis of a single accusation," says Moutkel-Warata, sitting on an old mat on the floor of a run-down building on the outskirts of the city.
"It was a regime of bloodthirsty terrorists."
"It was when they started amputating people's hands and feet in public that the people's shock and panic set in," says Ibrahim Abdoulaye, a civil society leader.
In August, several hundred angry protesters managed to stop the extremists from cutting off the hand of an accused thief, storming into the central square where the sentence was to be carried out.
The accused was a young MUJAO recruit who had allegedly stolen weapons to re-sell them.
A radio journalist who reported on the incident, Abdoul Malick Maiga, was so badly beaten by Islamists that he had to be hospitalised.
Moussa Boureima Yero ran a neighbourhood patrol that tried to protect residents from the extremists' abuses.
"One night, we stopped them from destroying a private villa. They fired into the crowd and killed one of our comrades, and wounded two others," he remembers.
"We don't know where we got that determination, that courage."
But their resistance was short-lived.
"It faded after a few months," Yero says.
Clubs and sticks were no match for MUJAO's "sophisticated heavy weapons," he says.
Women, who were forced to wear full veils in public, found their own forms of resistance.
Agaichatou, a mother of six in her 40s, says she tried to exploit the Islamists' prudery to go about her daily life.
"One day I was doing laundry by the river and they told me it was forbidden. So I took off my clothes and stood in front of them naked, and they ran away," she says.
"After that, lots of women used that weapon to continue washing by the river."
In this predominantly Muslim city, religious leaders also fought MUJAO's extremism.
"The ulema (Muslim scholars) never approved of their actions and clearly condemned this version of sharia, which isn't true to the Koran," says Ismael Maega, a teacher at a local madrassa, or Koranic school.
"But the citizens didn't have enough strength or means to defend themselves. It was the law of the strongest."