Mercredi 23/01/13, Depart des Ismalistes de Tombouctou”, wrote Marafa Cisse on a pillar in his main hall to mark the Wednesday that the combatants of the Ansar Dine Islamist rebel group left Timbuktu after occupying this much-chronicled city of northern Mali for nearly 10 months.

Four days later, French and Malian troops rolled into the city, triggering massive celebrations. Timbuktu is a prized conquest in the whirlwind military campaign that has pitted French jets, helicopters and ground forces against well-drilled and highly mobile rebels who, till recently, controlled nearly two-thirds of Mali. Since the French intervention began on January 11, security forces have reclaimed the cities of Konna, Diabaly, Gao and Timbuktu and are moving towards the final rebel stronghold in Kidal.

In the summer of 2012, an insurgency that began as a rebellion of the Tuareg ethnic minority to carve out an independent homeland in northern Mali escalated into a broad-based movement by Islamists — foreign and Malian — to annex the country and establish Sharia law.

Off the map

Nearly two-thirds of the country fell off the map as the rebels severed communication links, controlled the movement of the hostage population, destroyed several shrines of historic and religious import, and handed out severe punishments like flogging, stoning and amputations for those transgressing their interpretation of Islamic law. While the three main mosques of Timbuktu are still standing, numerous shrines and the Cemetery of the Three Saints have been destroyed. Experts are yet to establish the extent of the damage to Timbuktu’s treasure-trove of historical manuscripts.

With the rebels gone, the city appears to be in a strange delirium as quiet alleys suddenly echo with music, chanting, and spontaneous applause. The streets and crossings are swarming with people sharing stories of the occupation — like sleepers comparing notes from a collective trance — during which a luxury hotel became an Islamic court, government buildings became rebel headquarters, road signs were painted over with Sharia strictures and familiar routines and transactions were rendered strange and incomprehensible.

“The Islamist entered Timbuktu on April 1,” recalled Mr. Cisse, “On Friday they took Kidal, on Saturday — Gao, and on Sunday, they were here.” The police and army had fled their stations, the rebels entered without firing a single shot.

On the first day, they commandeered all government buildings and military installations, on the second day they took control of the fuel supplies, and on the seventh day, they appeared on FM 98.6, Radio Bouctou to announce the imposition of a new law.

“They said that women could not go out without covering themselves,” said Lala Arbi, a mother of two children, “they said women can’t talk on the phone, women can’t listen to music on the phone, can’t walk on the same side of the street as men.” Men were told to refrain from drinking or smoking. Youth clubs were disbanded. The punishment for violations, invariably, was flogging.

Soon the city fell into a routine where men and women did not acknowledge each other in public. “If I saw a man walking on the same side of the street, I crossed over to the other side,” Ms. Arbi said, “The men did the same.” What happened at crossroads? “There was a lot of confusion as you tried to figure out which side to take,” Mr. Cisse said wryly.

The banks closed on the Monday after the Islamic revolution, freezing the accounts of the entire city. As households ran out of money, the local economy teetered on the brink of collapse. “Then Tamba Doucoure set up the people’s bank,” said Moulaye Bakari, a tour guide, “The Islamists had no choice but to let it run.”

“It isn’t a bank, it’s a money transfer service,” clarified Ibrahim Doucoure, who sits in the large provisions store that served as the “bank”. “We have a transport business and an office in Bamako as well. So people deposited money at our office in Bamako and we transferred the money to their relatives in Timbuktu and gave them cash.” People used the cash to buy goods from the Doucoure store, and the money remained in circulation. On a few occasions when people withdrew too much cash, the company smuggled money into the city on one of their freight trucks.

“We had to take permission from the Islamists to bring goods and stock into the city from Bamako,” said Mr. Doucoure, “Sometimes we took a big risk and hid money amongst the products.”

Market distortions

Rebel occupation distorted the local markets in strange ways. “The price of veils and headscarves suddenly increased after the Islamists forced all women to cover their heads,” said Fatoumata Dicko, the caretaker of the local high school, “Before, they used to cost between 2500 and 3000 FCFA, but soon they cost nearly 5000 FCFA. My sister’s daughter fell ill, but before she went to the hospital, she first ran to the market to buy a scarf to cover her head.”

Cigarettes vanished from stores, as did skin-lightening cream. “The Islamists were very strict about skin-lightening cream, they would check all our trucks and confiscate prohibited items,” said Mr. Doucoure, the banker-cum-shopkeeper. “Other cosmetics and kohl were allowed.”

For many, the joy of liberation is tempered by the gnawing pains of nicotine withdrawal, as cigarette vendors are yet to replenish stocks. “People [who] have cigarettes are not selling them,” complained Bakari, the tour-guide, as he tore his last cigarette in half so he could smoke it twice. “They are selling Dunhills for 2000 FCFA.”

In the first week of January this year, the rebels advanced on Konna, a settlement just north of the key military town of Sevare. The push into south-central Mali prompted France to rush to the aid of its former colony. Soon, French jets were bombing rebel positions with pinpoint accuracy. Concerned that residents were passing on information to the French, the rebels disconnected communications links in many key towns including Timbuktu.

“The bombing began on the night of January 19,” said Marafa Cisse, “It continued for five nights, and hit rebels vehicles outside the city.” And then one day, the rebels were gone. Four days later, Mr. Cisse added another line to the pillar in his main hall. “Arrive Franco-Maliens 27/01/13 a’ Tombouctou,” he wrote.