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Woman in Timbuktu punished for forbidden love

Thursday - 2/7/2013, 7:16am  ET

In this Feb. 4, 2013 photo, Salaka Djicke stands at the entrance to the women's jail where she was held for two nights by Islamic police after being caught having a relationship with a married man, in Timbuktu, Mali. Until they were chased out by the French last week, the Islamic extremists who controlled northern Mali since April applied a harsh brand of Shariah in the moderate Muslim region. Djicke was publicly whipped, and at least one other unmarried couple was executed by stoning. (AP Photo/Harouna Traore)

Associated Press

TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) -- The love story in this fabled desert outpost began over the phone, when he dialed the wrong number. It nearly ended with the couple's death at the hands of Islamic extremists who considered their romance "haram" -- forbidden.

What happened in between is a study in how al-Qaida-linked militants terrorized a population, whipping women and girls in northern Mali almost every day for not adhering to their interpretation of the strict moral code known as Shariah. It is also a testament to the violent clash between the brutal, unyielding Islam of the invaders and the moderate version of the religion that has long prevailed in Timbuktu, once a center for Islamic learning.

Salaka Djicke is a round-faced, big-boned girl with the wide thighs still fashionable in the desert, an unforgiving terrain that leaves many women without curves. Until the Islamists came and upended her world, the 24-year-old lived a relatively free life.

During the day, she helped her mother bake bread in a mud oven, selling each puffy piece for 50 francs (10 cents). In the afternoon, she grilled meat on an open fire and sold brochettes on the side of the road. She saved the money she earned to buy herself makeup and get her hair styled.

Like her sisters and friends, she spoke openly with men -- including the stranger who called her by mistake more than a year ago.

The man thought he was calling his cousin. When he heard Salaka's voice, he apologized. His voice was polite but firm, with the authoritative cadence of a man in his prime. Hers was flirtatious, and her laugh betrayed her youth.

They started talking.

A few days later, he called her again. For two weeks, they spoke nearly every day, until he asked for directions to her house.

She explained how to find the mud house on Rue 141, past the water tower also made of mud, in a neighborhood less than a mile from where he sold gasoline from jerrycans by the roadside. She had time to put on a yellow dress.

He arrived on his motorcycle.

He was older -- she does not know how old -- and already married, a status that bears no taboo in a predominantly Muslim region where men can take up to four wives. She found him handsome.

From that day on, he ended phone conversations with the phrase, 'Ye bani,' or "I love you" in the Sonrai language. Instead of Salaka, he called her "cherie" -- sweetheart in French, still spoken in this former French colony.

He showered her with gifts, starting with a 6-yard-long piece of bazin fabric, the hand-dyed, polished cotton which is the mainstay of Malian fashion. It was a royal violet, and he paid to have it tailored into a two-piece outfit, with a flame-like flourish of orange brocade on the bodice.

She put it on for him, and they went to the photo studio one street over. They stood against the poster backdrop of an enamel-blue waterfall. He put his arms around her and invited her to sit on his lap.

By the time the first group of rebel fighters carrying the flag of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad drove past her house on April 1, the two had been seeing each other for several months. He called to see if she was OK.

These fighters in military uniforms made clear their goal: They wanted to create an independent homeland known as Azawad for Mali's marginalized Tuareg people.

Only days later, a different group of fighters arrived, wearing beards and tunics that looked like the kurtas common in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their black flag resembled the one people had seen on YouTube videos posted by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. They called themselves Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith."

They produced a pamphlet outlining how a woman should wear the veil, and whom she could and could not be seen with. Eschewing any contact with women, they handed the leaflets out to the men.

One of them was Salaka's boyfriend. He drove his motorcycle to her house to give it to her.

She didn't have enough money to buy the plain, colorless veil prescribed to cover the entire body. So her boyfriend went to the market and paid for two, one red and one blue. The women of sub-Saharan Africa are so used to wearing vibrant colors, he couldn't find any that were black.

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