It’s been nine years since Islamic extremists in northern Mali arrested Zahra Abdou on charges of showing her hair and wearing an outfit they said was too tight.
The al-Qaida-linked militants who had seized control of this fabled desert center in 2012 whipped Abdou in front of a throng of people in her neighborhood. Older women tried to stop the flogging but were prevented by the extremists.
“I received dozens of lashes in front of a large crowd and because of the pain I passed out,” she recalled. “It was a total humiliation for me. For a long time, I felt ashamed in front of the people of my neighborhood.”
The trauma still torments her, she says. Her anxiety has increased since France announced in July that it will have by 2022. After years of leading the fight against jihadis in Mali’s north, the French military will close its bases in Timbuktu and other northern centers.
Just as the Taliban has returned to power in Afghanistan, Abdou says she fears it’s only a matter of time before the extremists who punished her again rule Timbuktu and other cities in Mali’s north.
“I am afraid that the same thing will happen that took place in 2012,” she says, now 30 and still struggling with insomnia. “Because of this, I didn’t get my baccalaureate degree, I was too traumatized. I wanted to study commerce, to do business.
“Even now I have pain in my foot. I think a piece of glass from that has day is still lodged there,” she says.
For centuries Timbuktu has been a center for Islamic scholars who generally practiced a moderate form of Islam. In 2012 a new band of extremists, many from Algeria, established themselves, taking advantage of the Mali government’s lack of presence in the north.