Telling the story of Timbuktu's terror

The New York Times has done some amazing work this week covering Islamic conflicts in Africa. This story, which tells how sharia was implemented during Islamist domination of Timbuktu, is so very good. Note the beginning:

When the Islamist militants came to town, Dr. Ibrahim Maiga made a reluctant deal. He would do whatever they asked — treat their wounded, heal their fevers, bandage up without complaint the women they thrashed in the street for failing to cover their heads and faces. In return, they would allow him to keep the hospital running as he wished.

Then, one day in October, the militants called him with some unusual instructions. Put together a team, they said, bring an ambulance and come to a sun-baked public square by sand dunes.

There, before a stunned crowd, the Islamist fighters carried out what they claimed was the only just sentence for theft: cutting off the thief’s hand. As one of the fighters hacked away at the wrist of a terrified, screaming young man strapped to a chair, Dr. Maiga, a veteran of grisly emergency room scenes, looked away.

“I was shocked,” he said, holding his head in his hands. “But I was powerless. My job is to heal people. What could I do?”

This piece is riveting and so very descriptive. It shows how Muslims dealt with Islamist fighters linked with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. While Islamist militants have retreated to the desert, they are still a threat -- and the story deals somewhat with that.

The damage done to Timbuktu, according the story, is severe. Many residents fled. The city is dangerously isolated. I love the attention to religious detail in this story. For instance:

Those who remained told stories of how they survived the long occupation: by hiding away treasured manuscripts and amulets forbidden by the Islamists, burying crates of beer in the desert, standing by as the tombs of saints they venerated were reduced to rubble, silencing their radios to the city’s famous but now forbidden music.

“They tried to take away everything that made Timbuktu Timbuktu,” said Mahalmoudou Tandina, a marabout, or Islamic preacher, whose ancestors first settled in Timbuktu from Morocco in the 13th century. “They almost succeeded.”

The story provides some historical perspective of the occupations of Timbuktu.

My favorite aspect of the story, however, is how both groups' religious beliefs are included in the story -- not just those of the religious extremists, as is so often the case.


At the beginning of a story about how the rebels took the city, the narrator is coming home from prayer, for instance. The story is complex and the level of detail helps explain how the takeover was accomplished:

The Tuareg fighters took control of the city, and for two days they looted its sprawling markets, raped women, stole cars and killed anyone who stood in their way.

“Then the man with the big beard came,” Mr. Tandina said.

Barrel-chested and dressed in a blue tunic, the leader of Ansar Dine, an Islamist group with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, arrived with several truckloads of fighters. The new rebels called the city’s people to a public square and made an announcement.

“They said, ‘We are Muslims. We came here to impose Shariah,’ ” Mr. Tandina said.

At first, Timbuktu’s people were relieved, he said. Beginning a hearts-and-minds campaign, the group garrisoned the fearsome Tuareg nationalists outside of town, which stopped the raping and pillaging.

They did not charge for electricity or collect taxes. Commerce went on more or less as usual, he said.

Then a mysterious group of visitors came from Gao, heavily armed men riding in pickup trucks, trailing desert dust.

“They told us they were here to establish an Islamic republic,” Mr. Tandina said.

It started with the women. If they showed their faces in the market they would be whipped. The local men grew angry at attacks on their wives, so they organized a march to the headquarters of the Islamic police, who had installed themselves in a bank branch.

And that's just the beginning of the riveting story. When the Islamists go after the sites where saints were venerated, Tandina "tried to use his decades of Koranic education to argue with the Islamists, citing verses about respecting the burial places. They would not listen."

There is more. Much, much more. And other voices, too. This is a wonderful example of how not to ignore religion ghosts in a major news event. Much more than that, it's a wonderful example of how to dig deep on the religion angles even within the constraints of newswriting. Just a fantastic job.

Photo of mud mosque in Timbuktu via Shutterstock.

Please respect our Commenting Policy