TIMBUKTU, Mali (AFP) – Timbuktu has long been a crossroads of north and sub-Saharan Africa, but its mayor fears its cosmopolitan identity is at risk as light-skinned residents flee reprisals after a 10-month occupation by Islamists.
The fabled caravan city rose to fame in the 14th century as a trading hub where Arabs and Tuaregs exchanged northern salt for southern gold transported by black Africans to the edge of the Sahara.
But when French-led forces moved to reclaim the north Malian city last week from armed Islamists who seized it in the chaotic aftermath of a March 2012 military coup in the south, Arabs and Tuaregs began fleeing as their black neighbours turned on them for their perceived support of the occupiers.
Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse said he fears what will happen if these residents, who play a key role in the city’s economic and cultural life, do not return.
“We can’t live without Arabs and Tuaregs,” Cisse told AFP.
After the French and Malian troops moved into the city last Monday, hundreds of Timbuktu residents looted Arab-owned shops they said belonged to “terrorists” — in some cases finding arms and military equipment, but also carting off TVs, food and furniture.
One man living in a former bank converted by the extremists into the headquarters of a “committee of promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” was dragged out by hysterical residents who tried to lynch him before Malian troops intervened and arrested him.
Rights groups have reported summary executions of Arabs and Tuaregs in other parts of northern Mali.
Cisse, who is black, said he understands why people are angry.
“These are our brothers who lived alongside us that did the dirty work” for the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists, whose members reportedly came from across the region and beyond.
“It was really an ordeal,” he added. “I can’t really describe how people suffered.”
The extremists ruled the city under a brutal interpretation of Islamic law, whipping transgressors, cutting off an accused thief’s hand and publicly executing an alleged murderer.
They forced women to wear full veils, banned music and cigarettes and destroyed many of the city’s treasured Muslim saints’ tombs, condemning them as idolatrous under their hardline Wahhabi sect of Islam.
“At night, whenever they found a girl and boy together, they beat the boy and raped the girl,” Cisse said.
Women who went out without full veils were arrested and often raped, he added, saying there had been “dozens of rapes”.
“Arabs and Tuaregs weren’t subjected to these humiliations,” he said.
But he said Timbuktu’s blacks must learn to live with their Arab and Tuareg neighbours again.
“My mission as an elected official is to convince people to exercise restraint, to forgive. We have to live together in peace,” he said.
“This is the day we will be put to the test, the day we will really learn who is what. We can’t live without each other.”
Dressed in a flowing electric blue robe, the 60-something mayor raised a sceptical eyebrow when asked whether ethnic hatred would continue.
“You can’t pay too much attention to what young people are saying. It’s up to us to rein it in,” he said.
“I’m not saying there won’t be outbursts,” he added. “We have to raise awareness neighbourhood by neighbourhood.”
After the Islamists cut the city’s water, electricity and communication networks on their way out of town, “Everything has to be rebuilt,” Cisse said. “The city’s entire economy has been destroyed.”
The mayor’s own office is in shambles, the doors, windows and furniture destroyed.
“Even if we had the local government in place, it wouldn’t be functional. Everything has been burnt or stolen. I’m the mayor and I don’t have a chair or a computer.
“It’s a catastrophe,” he said.
But he added: “God willing, we are going to reclaim our history.”