Mali: Life under Al Qaeda

Malian truck driver Suleiman Traore's hand was amputated by militants.
Habibou Kouyate

BAMAKO, Mali — The amputation of Suleiman Traore was agonizingly slow, bloody and painful.

The 25-year-old truck driver was living in northern Mali when, in March, a coalition of tribal Tuareg separatists and Islamic militants overran the town of Gao.

A month later, Traore was at home in the afternoon playing with his 3-year-old daughter as his wife prepared soup for dinner, when two pick up trucks packed with masked, armed militants flying black flags pulled up outside.

They rushed into his compound, firing shots into the air and shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest).

“That’s how everything started,” Traore said.

They accused him of hiding government weapons from them. They shoved him to the ground, tied his hands behind his back with rope and dragged him away.

“I was really scared, because I knew I had done it,” he said.

Traore’s attempt to resist Islamic extremist rule had dire consequences. First, he was tortured, forced to do push-ups while they beat his back with a stick and kicked him in the stomach. Then they hung him from his tied hands and beat him some more.

After he told them where the guns were buried, the beatings continued until, eventually, he was locked in a cell.

Three months later he was taken out to a patch of land where 15 rebels stood by a chair. There was also a piece of rope and a kitchen knife with a 12-inch blade.

“I knew what would happen and I started to cry,” he recalled. Gao’s alleged chief enforcer of sharia, a man named Alou Toure, tied Traore’s wrist to the chair and began to cut through the skin, flesh and bone, sawing steadily.

“I was shouting and crying but he kept on cutting,” Traore said. “My eyes were open but I didn’t know what was going on. The pain was so great. I saw my own blood.”

It was 20-minutes before his hand and two inches of forearm fell, bloody and lifeless, into the dirt. The militants cried “Allahu akbar” and Traore, his stump roughly bandaged, was flung in a truck and driven to a hospital.

Another man, Mouctar Toure, 26, was also amputated at the order of Alou Toure — his own cousin.

“I’ve known him since we were kids. He wasn’t an Islamist before but they asked for volunteers and he joined them. He became like a devil in Gao,” Mouctar Toure said.

Since the takeover of northern Mali nearly 10 months ago, radical groups — Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) — have carried out amputations, public floggings and stoned people to death.

But even for those who escaped the worst deprivations of the draconian sharia punishments, life changed immeasurably for the worse when Islamic extremists arrived.

Music, television, drinking, dancing and smoking were all banned. Radio stations were cut off, government buildings and churches vandalized, bars and nightclubs shot up or burned to the ground.

They forced women to replace their usual brightly patterned headscarves with a dark veil covering all but their eyes. Until she fled to the capital Bamako two months ago, Ibadassane Walet, a 20-year-old high school student, had scarcely left her parents’ home in seven months.

“Before the Islamists came life was so good. We had fun. But now there is a complete lack of freedom,” she said. “Timbuktu was like a prison.”

Free again to do as she pleases, Walet is quick to smile, wears her uncovered hair in braids that hang to the nape of her neck, and a bright dress that hangs off her shoulder.

Walet is a Muslim, in the tolerant Malian sense, and so opposes the actions of radical fundamentalists. “Sharia is good but the way they do it is not the right way,” she said. “You need faith, you don’t need to kill people.”

She described the destruction of saints’ tombs in Timbuktu, which drew international condemnation, as “criminal.”

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Mali is mostly Muslim and traditionally coexisted peacefully with other groups, according to former Timbuktu resident Mohamed Traore, 41. “We were living together, Christians and Muslims, we helped each other, supported each other, even married each other.”

Traore said that all disappeared when the militants arrived and quickly began to dictate every detail of residents’ lives. “They told us what to wear, told us we could not listen to music, there could be no pictures on our walls at home, our children could not go to school,” he said.

After months of oppression, the militant Islamic rule of northern Mali’s towns seems to be coming to an end. When French and Malian troops entered the town of Gao on Saturday, they were greeted by cheering crowds doing what the Islamists had forbidden: Women let their hair down and wore colorful dresses, men dressed in shorts and smoked cigarettes. Music blared from speakers.

On Monday, the French-led advance reached the ancient city of Timbuktu, allowing people like Walet and Traore to dream of returning home.

“I am dying to go back home,” said Cisse Aziz, a Gao-born Muslim who converted to Christianity in his 20s, and fled to Bamako along with tens of thousands of other northerners as the militants advanced.

But for those who suffered the worst under the extremists, the joy of liberation is tempered by dark thoughts of revenge, which helps to explain some of the reports of reprisal killings emerging from the north in recent days.

“I would do more to them than they did to me,” said Traore, bitterly nursing the stump where his right hand once was. “I would cut their flesh from their bones.”

His fellow amputee, Toure, said he hoped and prayed that the cousin who had ordered his punishment was already dead.

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