In the war for the heart of northern Mali, the real fear isn’t al Qaeda, it’s the criminals and fundamentalists lurking just around the corner.
GAO, Mali – It was Saturday, Jan. 26, when the people of Gao, a trans-Saharan trading hub nestled on the banks of the Niger river, took their first act of revenge against the rebels who had terrorized them for close to a year.
A mob had surrounded a jihadi fighter whose vehicle had been destroyed by a French airstrike. The rebel had retreated to the center of town via a stolen donkey cart. He had no idea that his comrades had abandoned the city earlier that morning.
The jihadi was a member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or Mujao, a group that had spent the better part of a year implementing a destructive form of sharia law that included public amputations, floggings, and sexual slavery. He begged for his life, invoking Allah and the virtues of compassion. Then Dani Sidi Touré, a 29 year-old handyman and painter, took a screwdriver out of his pocket and stabbed the jihadi in the neck.
Touré tried to remove the screwdriver, but the handle broke off and the metal shaft remained lodged inside the jihadi’s neck. A man with a large knife came over and struck the Mujao fighter on the head. He fell to the ground and others quickly joined the fray, descending upon him with wood planks, stones, and chunks of concrete.
In a display of communal catharsis, the residents of northern Mali’s largest city continued to beat the body long after it was dead. When they were done, they tossed it into the Islamic police station, a building that had come to symbolize the brutal interpretation of shariah law that Mujao had imposed on their city.
The official liberation of Gao came only hours later, when French and Malian troops toured the city in front of cheering crowds. Women ripped off their veils. Gao’s mayor — a slick-talking, fedora-wearing businessman who campaigned in 2009 on the slogan “Yes We Can” — stood atop a French military vehicle and doled out cigarettes. Men and women danced in public, undulating together to Takamba — a trance-inducing local music played at celebrations — for the first time in months.
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