BBC News

Mali crisis: 'Timbuktu joy after life of fear'


Residents of Timbuktu in northern Mali have been living under Islamist rule for the last nine months.

The historic city is a World Heritage site, renowned for its architecture, manuscript libraries and centuries-old shrines to Islamic saints - revered by Sufi Muslims but which the Salafi militants consider idolatrous.

Following France's intervention in Mali last week, a Timbuktu resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told BBC Africa about reaction in the city to the Islamist fighters' apparent withdrawal.

Timbuktu resident:

We are happy, we want to thank France because they did well [although there are no French troops in Timbuktu at present].

Now, we feel free.

[From the time the French intervention began], the Islamists began to panic.

Some left town, they went about 60km (40 miles) outside Timbuktu, and other headed towards Douentza.

The city is quiet.

They left by car [the same cars they used to get into Timbuktu].

There were many of them, but now only a few are left, and they are not strong. They are trying to hide in town.

We are now beginning to be free.

[All types of Islamists] were here, they brought chaos to Timbuktu.

We couldn't just go out if we wanted to.

They beat men, women, children. They cut people's hands. They killed people.

We were afraid.

We didn't have a choice.

They destroyed mausoleums, we were not happy about that.

But people are now able to go out.

People have freedom. People are happy. They can move about freely.

They are not under pressure.

People are smoking, people can do anything they want.

So it is important. So we want France to carry on [with the intervention].

There is no city administration.

There has not been one for the past nine months [since the Islamists took power].

'No work'

Today everyone can do as they please. We would like the French to come to Timbuktu. I would like to see their faces.

image captionAncient shrines in Timbuktu have been destroyed over the last year

Ever since the Islamists arrived, we have not been able to work.

I have not been able to do any work for nine months. There is no work, nothing is going on.

There was no-one to work with, no clients. They fled.

I lost a lot - all my savings. I needed to eat.

I hope to resume normal activities in a month or two.

When peace returns, we will be able to talk [more openly about what happened under the Islamists]."

The battle for Mali

image captionFrench forces have bombed rebel bases in Mali, where Islamist rebels have threatened to advance on the capital Bamako from their strongholds in the north. France said it had decided to act to stop the offensive, which could create "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe".
image captionThe landlocked area of West Africa was the core of ancient empires going back to the 4th Century. The French colonised Mali, then known as French Sudan, at the end of the 19th Century, while Islamic religious wars created theocratic states in the region.
image captionMali gained independence in 1960 but endured droughts, rebellions and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992. In the early 1990s, the nomadic Tuareg of the north began an insurgency over land and cultural rights.
image captionThe insurgency gathered momentum in 2007, and was exacerbated by an influx of arms from the 2011 Libyan civil war. Tuareg nationalists, alongside Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda, seized control of the north in 2012 after a military coup by soldiers frustrated by government efforts against the rebels.
image captionThe fighting in the north and the establishment of a harsh form of Islamic law has forced thousands to flee their homes - some estimates say more than half the northern population has fled south or across borders into neighbouring countries.
image captionIn January 2013, the Islamists captured the central city of Konna. France, responding to appeals for help from the Mali president, has sent about 550 troops to the Mopti and to Bamako, which is home to about 6,000 French nationals. French jets have also launched air strikes.