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They whipped her... she felt the blood seeping through

The love story in this fabled desert outpost of Timbuktu began over the phone, when he dialled 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-Qa'ida-linked militants terrorised 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.

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.

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 apologised. 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. 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.

Sweetheart

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.

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 okay.

These fighters in military uniforms made clear their goal: They wanted to create an independent homeland known as Azawad for Mali's marginalised Tuareg people. Only days later, a different group of fighters arrived. 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. 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 veil prescribed to cover the entire body. So her boyfriend went to the market and paid for two, one red and one blue.

As their love affair grew more intense, so did the crackdown by the Islamists in northern Mali, an area equal in size to Afghanistan. The fear was now palpable on the streets of Timbuktu. Salaka and her boyfriend stopped seeing each other in public. When he came, they sat in the enclosed courtyard of her parents' home.

Begged

Even in relatively modern Timbuktu, it was not considered appropriate to leave the couple alone in a room. So he arranged for a friend to loan him the keys to his empty house in a neighbourhood less than a mile away.

Would she please join him there, just for an hour, once a week? She hesitated. He begged her, saying he couldn't be without her. They determined that the Islamic police stopped their patrols at 10pm.

She went once and got home safely. She went again.They began meeting once a week. He brought her on his motorcycle, stopping close to the house and pushing the bike through a blanket of sand to avoid attention. But on the night of December 31 she was arrested.

On January 3 they took her to the Islamic tribunal. Salaka was sentenced to 95 lashes. It was a severe punishment even by the standards of the Islamists.

They took her to the market at noon on January 4.

The police made her kneel in a traffic circle. They told her to remove her dress, leaving only the thin fabric to protect her skin from the whip. Curious children jostled for a better view. A man announced Salaka's crime and her punishment. Then he began flogging her with a switch made from the branch of a tree. Her high-pitched cries are contorted with pain. They hit her so hard and for so long that at one point she wasn't sure if the veil had fallen off. She could feel the blood seeping through.

When it was over, they told her that if they ever saw her with a man again, they would kill her.

Her lover called as soon as she got home. The night she was caught, he ran away to Mali's distant capital, becoming one of an estimated 385,000 people who have fled their homes from the north.

He said over and over: "I'm sorry." He promised to marry her. But he has not yet returned. She still will not name him, fearing the Islamist extremists will be back.

Her face warms when she speaks of him and contracts when she describes her pain and humiliation. Last week, Salaka was among the thousands of people who poured into the streets to cheer French soldiers as they liberated the city.

She folded and put away her blue and red veils.

hnews@herald.ie


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