The Straits Times
Published on Jan 29, 2013

'We are independent again' say ecstatic Timbuktu residents


TIMBUKTU, Mali (AFP) - "We are independent again! We were held hostage for 10 months but it seemed like 10 years," exulted Hama Cisse, echoing the euphoria in Mali's historic city of Timbuktu which French-led soldiers freed from Islamist occupation on Monday.

In the dusty streets of the ancient city on the edge of the Sahara, which fell to French and Malian soldiers without any resistance by Islamists, the women were walking again freely after being cloistered and forced to cover their faces.

"I had to wear a burqah, gloves and cover everything," said Lahlia Garba, a woman in her fifties, adding she suffered from "anxiety and stomach pain" every time she was trapped in layers of cloth.

The once cosmopolitan town and a centre of Islamic learning for centuries, Timbuktu became a dusty outpost for the extremists, who forced women to wear veils, whipped and stoned those who violated their version of strict Islamic law, and destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered "idolatrous". Their reign of terror in this UNESCO listed World Heritage Site also extended to amputations.