VOA reporter Idriss Fall is one of the first journalists to reach Gao, northern Mali's largest city, since Islamists seized control of the region several months ago and began enforcing a strict form of Sharia law - banning alcohol and smoking and insisting that women wear veils, among other measures.
Fall spoke with Natissatou Maiga, a teacher, who said she rides her motorcycle with her hair waving in the wind deliberately, as a gesture of defiance:
"I used to wear the veil, but since they made it mandatory, I stopped wearing it." Maiga told herself, "No one can force me to become an Islamist. I want to be Islamist for myself, for my parents, but not for someone who demands it." She says she has never had any trouble with the militants, and in fact, they avoid women who do not wear the veil because they deem them dangerous.
Refugees fleeing Gao. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
Amadou Cisse, of the Liberation Front in Northern Mali. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
Two Gao women residents on a motorcycle. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
A school for the blind in Gao. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
Jobless people in Gao. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
Citizens playing soccer, which is forbidden in the country. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
A local office of EcoBank. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
Inside a church destroyed by Islamists. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
On a scooter: Nafissatou Maiga, a teacher from Menaka now stuck in Gao. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
Gao's soccer (football) field. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
A man whose hand was amputated under Sharia law. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
Azawad’s flag. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
Hawa Doumbia, a trader. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
The house of a leader of MUJWA. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
The Niger river. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
Obama stickers on motorcycles in Gao. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
A ransacked restaurant. (Idriss Fall/VOA)
Bouba Maiga chairs the Gao Youth Regional Council. On May 14, he says, local youths revolted against the restrictions and attacked some of the local rulers barehanded.
GAO, Mali - Idriss Fall, a member of VOA's French to Africa Service, spent several days in Gao this week after a long, hot drive to the remote city. Many people told their visitor they object to the new Islamist laws, and in some cases are defying the militants' orders.
Interview with Idriss Fall
He says the young people were frustrated because they were not allowed to watch movies and their freedom was curtailed. After their revolt, local youths went back to watching television as usual. Maiga says even the Islamists subsequently bought some satellite dishes and video games, and gave some of the equipment to a young man injured during the uprising.
The youth council leader says one Islamist leader acknowledged that his child watches TV and plays games, so there is no reason to restrict other young people from their favorite activities. However, Maiga noted, the Islamist leader added that youth must understand that Sharia has been implemented, and that they will be punished if they do certain things.
The local rulers in Gao are members of several regional groups, including Tuareg rebel group MNLA and Islamist groups Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.
One resident, Abdoulaye Tattara, reports spotting at least two Algerian members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the north African affiliate of the notorious terrorist network.
Tuareg rebels have battled for autonomy in northern Mali for decades, with the fighting interrupted by periodic peace deals.
The rebellion gained new momentum in late 2011 after Tuareg fighters returned from Libya, where they been fighting for Moammar Gadhafi until he was overthrown and killed. The well-armed Tuaregs seized the upper hand in clashes with Mali's government, and the territorial gains they made caused discontent in Mali's capital, Bamako, and resulted in a military coup three months ago ( March 22 ). Within days, the Tuareg MNLA and Islamist Ansar Dine, fighting alongside each other without a formal alliance, took control of Gao and northern Mali's other main regions, Kidal and Timbuktu.
People in Gao say the rebels looted shops, homes and and the local hospital as soon as they arrived, causing resentment that has not gone away despite a radio appeal for forgiveness broadcast on June 18.
One man told VOA the Islamists' appeal was ridiculous:
"Gao residents will never forgive, because the MNLA has made them suffer." he said.
He says his young brother was riding his motorcycle one day, and it was taken away. "Can one really ask forgiveness for such acts?" the man said. In his words, "local residents are really tired of such treatment, and they are asking, 'What has the MNLA done for us?'"
Living conditions in Gao have improved somewhat since early April. VOA's Fall reports that the city's main market is fully stocked, but money and drinking water are in short supply. The hospital was looted in April but is functioning again under Islamist protection.
Electricity remains one of the central problems. Whole neighborhoods are going without power. One housewife told Fall that food spoils quickly, and her family suffers.
The militants' ability to enact their agenda, or merely keep a hold on power, will likely rest on their ability to win over the local population. They appear to have a steep hill to climb.
One former bar owner says he has lost everything he owned because of the rebels and Islamists.
"First," the man says, "they came into my house and started firing. Then they took two of my cars. Then they ordered everyone out and took away everything, even stuff belonging to my wife and children." He says the militants claim they are acting under Sharia, the Islamic law. "Now," he says, "I am on the streets. I cannot forgive that. I cannot forgive either the MNLA or Ansar Dine."
The African Union has rejected the Tuaregs' declaration of an independent state in northern Mali, while efforts continue to stabilize the country and maintain its territorial integrity.
Written by Dan Joseph in Washington, based on reporting from Gao by Idriss Fall.