Just a few years ago, Timbuktu was still a popular destination for tourists. These days, by contrast, the town has the lugubrious air of many post-conflict zones around the world. White SUVs from the United Nations patrol its streets. Its citizens depend on handouts from international humanitarian organizations. The electricity supply is still spotty. The craftsmen and tour guides who used to live from the tourism trade now wait in vain for customers. The reasons for the decline in the city’s fortunes are all too apparent. In 2011, a Tuareg-dominated separatist group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), capitalizing on an influx of weapons from Libyan arsenals after the collapse of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime, stormed across northern Mali (an area the rebels saw as a Tuareg homeland they called “Azawad”). The poorly equipped and deeply demoralized Malian Army collapsed. The outside world took relatively little notice at first — but then the MNLA’s allies, jihadi groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), set out to hijack the rebellion. In Timbuktu, they declared their own brand of sharia rule, amputating the limbs of thieves and stoning alleged adulterers.
The prospect of a new al Qaeda-dominated state in West Africa was too much for the West to bear, and in January 2013, French President Francois Hollande dispatched an expeditionary force to Mali. The French made short work of the rebels, and after just two weeks of fighting, on Jan. 27, the occupiers of Timbuktu fled into the desert. Next month, the people of the town will mark the first anniversary of liberation from separatist rule.
Yet there are still many signs of the jihadi presence. One of the first occupiers’ first acts after their takeover was to blow up a statue of an Islamic scholar who is regarded as Timbuktu’s greatest patron. The reason for the destruction, the new rulers declared, was the Quranic ban on depiction of the human form. For the same reason, they dispatched men armed with spray cans to paint over the faces on advertisements and billboards.
Some of the faces have yet to be restored, though in many cases Timbuktuans have taken symbolic revenge by covering them with posters of the candidates in this year’s parliamentary elections. The overwhelming majority of Timbuktu’s citizens consider themselves good Muslims, but most seem to prefer Mali’s imperfect electoral democracy to the rule of the black flag of al Qaeda.
Full Article: Votes, Hopes, and Missing Faces.