By Paul Hyacinthe Mben
Northern Mali is virtually inaccessible to journalists at present. Sharia law has been in effect there since last spring, when fundamentalists took control of a large part of the country, which had been considered a model nation until then. The fundamentalists stone adulturers, amputate limbs and squelch all opposition. They have destroyed tombs in Timbuktu that were recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. Despite the risks, Paul Hyacinthe Mben, 39, a SPIEGEL employee and journalist in the capital Bamako , which is not yet under Islamist control, ventured into northern Mali . Before the trip, he spent weeks negotiating with Islamist leaders for safe passage. In return, he was forced to accept certain conditions. During his almost three-week stay in the north, he had to conform to the Islamists' dress code, as well as submit to a number of searches and interrogations. But he never revealed to the Islamists where he was staying overnight, and he never stayed in the same place for more than a day. He lived in constant fear of being kidnapped. He had hardly returned to Bamako before learning that seven armed men had been following him in the north, with the aim of taking him captive.
A checkpoint set up by the Islamist police on the road to Gao marks the beginning of the region controlled by the new rulers of northern Mali. Adolescents wielding Kalashnikovs stand at the barrier with their legs apart. The oldest one keeps repeating the same instructions through a megaphone: "No cigarettes, no CDs, no radios, no cameras, no jewelry," an endless loop of prohibitions, a list of everything that's haram, or impure, with which this journey to the north begins. The men stand guard in the name of the Prophet Muhammad.
With arrogant gestures, they stop the few long-distance buses still coming from southern Mali. One of the men, holding his weapon at the ready, inspects the busses by walking down the aisle and checking to make sure everyone is in compliance with the Islamists' rules: Are women and men sitting in separate areas? Are the women wearing the hijab? And are the men wearing trousers that reach to their ankles, the kind of trousers that radical Muslims believe the Prophet favored? They are now obligatory in Gao.
The driver and the passengers submit to the procedure in silence. When it's over, the inspector jumps out of the back door, still wielding his Kalashnikov, and calls out "Salam alaikum," the greeting commonly used in the Muslim world. The bus has now been cleared to pass through the checkpoint.
A Divided Nation
Mali has been a divided country since April, when Islamists took control of a region in the north larger than France, while the south is still administered by a government that is incapable of defending itself.
This spring, forces with the Tuareg ethnic group drove the Malian army out of the country's northern regions within only a few weeks. They proclaimed the Tuareg nation of Azawad, which no nation in the world has recognized.
Then came the Islamists, armed to the teeth with what was left of the arsenal of the former Gadhafi regime in nearby Libya. The Islamists are also well connected with al-Qaida fighters who for some years now have found a safe haven in the Maghreb region of North Africa and the countries of the Sahel zone south of the Sahara Desert.
Those Tuareg who didn't join the Islamists were driven out. The fronts of buildings in Gao still show traces of the power struggle between the two groups, including bullet holes and blackened and crumbling walls. The world is now deeply concerned that Mali could turn into another Somalia or Afghanistan.
In principle, the United Nations Security Council has already approved the deployment of international troops against the north. The European Union has decided to send military advisors, and the United States is even considering the use of remote-controlled drones to fight the Islamist leaders. Northern Mali, less than a five-hour flight from Paris, cannot become a new hotbed of terrorism or a second Somalia, says German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. His US counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, believes that the Islamists in Mali were behind the attack that led to the death of the American ambassador in the Libyan city of Benghazi seven weeks ago.
A Lifeless Place
Gao, a city of 100,000 people, has become a lifeless place since the Islamists took over. It was once a stopping point for tourists traveling to Timbuktu, but now the roadside stands have disappeared, bars and restaurants are boarded up and music is banned. The new strongmen proclaim their creed on signs posted at street corners, written in white Arabic lettering on a black background, that read: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."
To make matters worse, garbage collection has been suspended, leaving waste to rot in the streets at temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Around 400,000 people have already fled the Islamists. Most who have left represent the better-educated parts of the work force, like the engineers who kept the power plant and waterworks in operation. Foreign aid organizations are gone, as are government officials who were in the process of implementing a new road construction program.
"Gao is a dead city," says Allassane Amadou Touré, a mechanic, as he drinks tea in the shade. He is unemployed, like many in the city, and says that Gao's economic output has "declined by 85 percent" since the spring.
The Islamic police have become the city's biggest employers. Ironically, their headquarters are on Washington Street in downtown Gao. From there, the armed police officers, most of them young men who are little more than children, are sent out into the neighborhoods to drum into residents what is considered "haram" and "halal," or pure.
Until recently, the Sharia courts' sentences were also carried out on Washington Street, but now the Islamic police have become more cautious. Since an angry crowd managed to rescue people who had been convicted of crimes from the executioner, hands and feet are now being severed in secret.
The Sharia court uses a former military base outside the city to carry out its grisly punishments. One of its victims is Alhassane Boncana Maiga, who was found guilty of stealing cattle. Four guards drag Maiga, wearing a white robe, into a dark room and tie him to a chair, leaving only one hand free. A doctor gives the victim an injection for the pain.
Then Omar Ben Saïd, the senior executioner, pulls a knife out of its sheath. "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful," he calls out, takes the convicted man's hand and begins to slice into it, as blood squirts out. It becomes more difficult when Saïd reaches the bone, and it's a full three minutes before the hand drops into a bucket. The executioner reaches for his mobile phone, calls his superior and says: "The man has been punished."
Maiga had kept his eyes shut the entire time, not even screaming. The men lead him into another room, where his arm is bandaged, and after 15 minutes he is released and stumbles into the street. "I'm innocent," he says. "What am I supposed to do now? I can't work anymore."
A few days later, Maiga is dead, probably as a result of blood loss or an infection.
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