“The atmosphere is good, its very good, all this liberty. Now we no longer risk prison, no one hits us, life is good.” Niafata told RFI, amid Malian and French flags and banners praising the soldiers. “Now we are at ease,” adds her friend.
Doundai Touré savoured the moment of joy “People couldn’t wait to see the French army and the Malian army enter the town. But luckily, it was very quick, and now we are happy. Today is about Liberty, the dearest thing in the world.”
Women abandoned the veils they were forced to wear by the islamists. “Yes, we are celebrating because we are free! We can do what we want,” exclaimed a happy Niama Maye.
She described how the last year had been difficult “because they hit us, people made us do what we didn’t want to do. We thank François Hollande.”
“The islamists ran away, the soldiers came, and the toubabs [white people] came too” interrupted five year old Ibrahim, adding “I am happy. Today we’re going to party and dance and shout “Vive la France!” May god give France everything she wants!”
As they left, the islamists cut off telephone lines and attacked certain buildings such as premises of ORTM, the national television channel.
They also burned down the Ahmed Baba centre, which housed ancient manuscripts and thousands of precious documents.
Yehia Tandina, a journalist who is well-known in Timbuktu, was hiding in a corner of the building when it was set alight by the jihadists. “It was sheer terror”, she explains, “They had a power, an uncontested power, so they did what they wanted. There were at least 180,000 manuscripts. Everything is destroyed.”
Mahmoud’s eyes fill with tears as he considers the destruction and he says many many people cried as they saw the flames.
Teacher El Hadj says he came to the centre often, until the Islamists closed off access. “These are very sacred manuscripts which have just been burned. The whole city of Timbuktu rests on those papers…..As someone from the generation of the future, it’s as though they burned our spirit. In every way.”
Yehi Tandina and others in the city insist that whatever was not destroyed was stolen by the jihadists, noting that as well as their historical importance, the documents had a market value.