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Freedom returns to the storied city of Timbuktu

Friday - 2/1/2013, 12:00pm  ET

Women dance openly in front of a photographer as they walk along a street in Timbuktu, Mali, Thursday Jan. 31, 2013. Many things have changed in Timbuktu since the Islamic militants ceased to enforce their law and relinquished power to French special forces who parachuted in several days ago, liberating this storied city, and now there is a growing sense of freedom. (AP Photo/Harouna Traore)

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI
Associated Press

TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) -- On the morning French commandos parachuted onto the sand just north of this storied city and ended 10 months of Islamic rule, Hawi Traore folded up her veil. On the next day, she wore heels. On the day after, she put on her sparkly earrings, got her hair braided and tried her mother's perfume.

Finally on Thursday, the 12-year-old girl dared to dance in the streets, celebrating freedom from the draconian rules that were imposed by the al-Qaida-linked militants on this desert capital for much of the past year.

Four days since French special forces liberated Timbuktu, there is a growing sense of freedom -- particularly among women. The speed with which women have claimed back their freedom underscores one of the advantages the French hold against an elusive enemy on unforgiving terrain: The population here has long practiced a moderate Islam rather than the extremism of the militants.

Although Timbuktu has long been a code word for the ends of the earth, until recently its women led a relatively modern existence, where they were not required to be covered and could socialize with men. That changed abruptly last year, when radical Islamists seized control of the northern half of Mali in the chaos after a coup in the distant capital.

When they first arrived, Hawi, a tall, fast-talking, sassy preteen girl, was just learning how to put on makeup. She learned the hard way to wear the toungou, the word for veil in the Songhai language. Her slender arm still bears the scar left by the whip of the Islamic police, her punishment for not properly covering up.

Her once-free life became increasingly restricted, as did that of her sisters and friends.

The Islamists showed no mercy, beating everyone from pregnant women to grandmothers to 9-year-old girls who weren't fully covered. Even talking to a brother on the front stoop of a woman's own home could get her in trouble.

Smoking, drinking and music were banned. So was playing soccer. The worst punishment was reserved for love outside the rules, and an unmarried couple who had two children out of wedlock was stoned to death in one northern Malian town.

Fatouma Traore lives on Street No. 415 in Timbuktu, the road that runs directly in front of the building where the Islamic Tribunal operated in what was once a luxury, boutique hotel. A leaflet left in the dirt in the courtyard set out eight rules for how women should wear the veil.

Rule No. 1 is that the fabric should cover the entire body. Rule No. 2 is that it can't be transparent. Rule No. 3 is that it needs to be colorless. And finally, Rule No. 8 states that a woman should not perfume herself after putting it on.

"We even bought a veil for this baby," said the 21-year-old Traore, picking up her 1-year-old niece and hoisting her on one hip. "Even if you are wearing the veil and it happens to slip off and you are trying to put it back on, they hit you."

The French military launched an intervention to oust the Islamists from power in northern Mali on Jan. 11, and rapidly forced their retreat from the major cities in less than three weeks.

The French arrived here before midnight on Monday in a platoon of 600 soldiers, accompanied by 200 Malian troops. They included paratroopers flown in from a base in Corsica, who landed in the north under the cover of darkness, as well as a convoy of 150 armored vehicles which simultaneously reached the town's western perimeter, according to a French military spokeswoman.

The Islamists were nowhere to be found. They had vanished into the desert, leaving behind a terrorized population and obstacles for the French.

A plane was parked sideways in the middle of the runway at the airport to prevent other aircrafts from landing. Satellite photos showed the runway was also covered with evenly spaced mounds of dirt, said France's Defense Ministry on Thursday. Fearing hidden mines, the French called in specialists with heavy equipment to clear the three-kilometer (1.8-mile)-long landing strip after the damage by the Islamists.

"They destroyed parts of the runway. They removed sections of the asphalt. They destroyed the control tower. We had to control it to make sure that it was not mined," said Capt. Frederic, in charge of communication in Mali for France's 3rd Mechanized Brigade, who could only be identified by his first name in keeping with French military protocol.

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