"After the French had flown their first air strikes and the Islamists' headquarters on the outskirts of the city was in ruins, we saw a large fire burning in the middle of the night at the Ahmed Baba Institute," says Kounta. "We knew that now they were burning our books."
Kounta pokes around in the pile of ashes in the institute's inner courtyard. More than 30,000 historic documents had been stored there, and about 2,000 likely went up in flames that night before the Islamists left. "They're still someplace nearby," says Kounta, his voice betraying his feeling of fear. "The desert is large."
Radouane Ag Joudou, a 52-year-old blacksmith, has a small shop near a mosque. He's a member of the Tuareg, the lighter-skinned ethnic group inhabiting the deserts of northern Mali, who are referred to as redskins by the dark-skinned Songhai ethnic group. The two groups have been rivals for centuries, embroiled in archaic conflicts pitting nomadic against sedentary tribes, herders against farmers, lighter-skinned against darker-skinned people, in a Cain-against-Abel struggle.
The Tuareg were the ones who rebelled against the central government in Bamako in early 2012. Many defected to the Islamists and helped to pave the way for them. Now, many blacks in Timbuktu feel that all Tuareg are collaborators. When the Islamists disappeared into the desert, many Arabs and Tuareg went with them, fearing reprisals from their former neighbors.
But this only made them more suspect. Almost all Arab-owned businesses in Timbuktu have since been looted, and an entire block was destroyed. Ag Joudou is the sole Tuareg who has decided to remain in Timbuktu. "I have eight children and I was born here, so where should I go?" he asks. Two Songhai friends give him a reassuring nod. "I hope that they will leave me in peace, because I haven't done anything to anyone."
Everyone knows that the terrorists are gone, but not dead. ECOWAS peacekeepers are expected to replace the French when they withdraw, but no one has any real confidence in them, and even less so in the Malian army.
It is also unclear how quickly the ECOWAS troops, of which there will be up to 6,000, can advance into Mali. It is, however, certain that their presence will hardly be sufficient to bring lasting peace to the region. Mali's problems go far beyond driving out the terrorists. The conflict between the population in the south and the Tuareg in the north -- where people feel neglected by the central government and some make a living smuggling drugs -- is of course unresolved.
The problem can only be eliminated "by a more equitable distribution of power in the country," writes French Islam expert Olivier Roy. He argues that occupying the territory isn't the way to defeat al-Qaida, and that to deprive the Islamists of the bulk of their influence, one has to approach the groups that support the terrorists -- and give them a good reason to stop doing it. But that, Roy argues, requires negotiating with the Tuareg instead of branding them all as terrorists.
That's one reason Roy believes the Europeans will likely have to serve as mediators in Mali in the long term.