Five times a day for more than 15 years, Aphadi Wangara has led prayers at the Sidi Yahya mosque in Timbuktu, one of three in the ancient Malian desert town. But the day after hardline Islamists attacked and damaged the 14th-century mosque, the softly spoken imam had no consoling words to offer.
Wangari, who is in his late 60s, said: “I prefer to keep my silence. What is in my heart cannot be said.”
Barely 24 hours earlier, a group of Islamist militants had appeared outside the clay-coated mosque, armed with pickaxes and shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest). They broke down the entrance, destroying a door that locals believed had to stay shut until the end of the world.
The militants, who belong to the al-Qaeda-linked group, Ansar Dine, had already defaced mausoleums and tombs of local Sufi saints, prompting Unesco to declare Timbuktu an endangered World Heritage site.
“There is a door that absolutely cannot be opened at the entrance of the [Sidi Yahya] mosque,” said resident Haidrata, who gave only his first name.
“We believe it is a profanity to open this door; it can only be opened on the day the world will end. The militants broke it down. They were shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.
“When I asked them why, they said because they were being accused of destroying endangered monuments when they hadn’t done so – they wanted to show what they were really capable of.”
Ansar Dine and the Tuareg separatist MNLA movement claim the local monuments and distinctive sun-baked mosques are idolatrous and contrary to their strict interpretation of Islam. Sanda Banama, an Ansar Dine spokesperson, said the monuments were “unIslamic – in Islam, there are strict laws about the way and size in which tombs are built,” Banama said.
Residents said that Ansar Dine, who seized the northern two-thirds of Mali after a coup toppled the southern Bamako-based government, continued to control Timbuktu. “People are still leaving their houses to go to the market but they are scared. A while back the militants whipped a couple who they said were fornicating before marriage,” said Fatima Sow, who fled to Bamako this week as pick-up trucks with Ansar Dine militants prowled the city.
Almost 1 000km south in Bamako, a transitional government struggling to exert control over the vast territory amid violent demonstrations and countercoup attempts appears powerless to stop the attacks.
But the assault on the Yahya Sidi mosque has prodded festering anger among ordinary Malians.
“Everybody is absolutely frustrated, everybody is angry. Many of those people will be willing to take to the streets and push the government into doing something,” said Tiegoum Maiga, who organised a march through the capital this week. “The government says it can’t do anything but people in Timbuktu are using sticks and stones to defend themselves.”
“It’s good that these things are being labelled crimes, but it is not even the worst thing these terrorists have done. In January, they attacked and disembowelled 100 Malian soldiers and the international community said nothing,” said Cheick Oumar Cisse, a former culture minister and one of Mali’s most famous filmmakers.
“The more people denounce them, the more they will defy the international community to prove they are masters in their own territory.
“We hope the destruction will stop here, but these are people who are completely mad and incapable of being reasoned with,” he said.
The Economic Community of West African States is considering presenting a military plan to the UN Security Council. But militant Islamists, already thriving on a “kidnap economy” operating out of the country’s northern desert, have flourished. Protests have also simmered for weeks as the key northern garrison towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal have fallen to hardline Islamist groups. In Gao, a municipal councillor was killed last week by Ansar Dine, residents said. – © Guardian News & Media 2012