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In Timbuktu, a giant task of reconnecting a remote city to the world

Before they left, Islamists in northern Mali cut Internet and phone connections. Restoring them is just the first step toward piecing Mali back together.

When the Internet got knocked out three weeks ago here in Timbuktu, Islamist militants who then ran the city did what most of us would do: They harassed their service provider.

“They all had my number, and they all called to complain,” says Aguissa Maiga, the local chief technician for Orange, a leading telecoms company in Mali that serves many customers in Timbuktu.

There was an irony to the cries for restored connectivity. Militants have spent the past nine months trying to isolate northern Mali as a hardline Islamist realm. Those in Timbuktu ultimately sabotaged telecoms stations as French and Malian forces advanced on the city last week, says Mr. Maiga.

Now he faces the urgent mission of helping get Timbuktu’s citizens back on their phones and back online – among the first of many tasks involved in knitting a torn country back together.

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Administration must be rebuilt, and tens of thousands of displaced people need to return home. Meanwhile, French and Malian forces must keep the peace. Islamists have been evicted from cities and towns, but could turn to a guerrilla campaign. Many in Mali also fear reprisal attacks as authorities work to restore order.

Mali began fraying years ago. Under-development and poor governance in the north helped fuel ethnic Tuareg rebellions, and in recent years enabled criminal networks that Al Qaeda-linked militants tapped for cash.

Last April, Islamist militants capitalized on yet another Tuareg revolt to launch their own takeover of Mali’s north. In Timbuktu, as elsewhere, they set up a harsh rule based on a literalist reading of Islamic texts.

Some things were compulsory – among them attending prayer and dressing modestly. Others, such as cigarettes, mixed-sex socializing, and music, were forbidden. Punishments ranged from simple beatings to stoning alleged adulterers and cutting off the hands of people accused of theft.

Morality police

Militants in Timbuktu set up morality police to keep an eye on residents and enforce their version of religious strictures, with one office near a busy market. Before long, people were avoiding the area, said a local merchant who asked not to be named because she feared a possible reprisal.

“There were always lots of Islamists in the street, though,” he says. “Sometimes they would even grab people returning home from prayer at the mosque, and force them to pray again.”

One day the merchant’s sister was caught getting water from a pump by her door while wearing a knee-length dress, the merchant said. She was held for ten hours in a bank ATM booth, then released with a beating. Her brother began monitoring the morality police office, passing information on abuses to Human Rights Watch.

The militants grew watchful against such activities, says the merchant, who escaped suspicion by being discreet. One day he was alarmed by a summons for questioning by a morality police commander over two men who loitered regularly in the area.

“Every day I see them, and one wears dark glasses,” the commander said, according to the merchant. “Who is that one, and what is he doing?”

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“He’s old and unemployed, that’s all,” the merchant began. The commander cut him off: “You tell them if they come back again, we’ll take them.”

Reports filtered out

Islamist efforts to escape outside scrutiny ultimately failed. Thanks in part to people like the merchant, reports of life under their rule filtered out of the north, and helped build international pressure for a military campaign to unseat them.

That campaign was kick-started this month by a surprise Islamist advance south to the city of Konna, prompting a distress call from Mali’s interim president and overnight deployment of French troops to lead a counter-offensive.

Somehow during the turmoil, the Orange relay station at Konna was knocked out of service, cutting Internet connections from cities up the line. It was then that Islamists in Timbuktu, served by Konna’s station, began pestering Maiga, the Orange technician.

Over the past weekend, French and Malian forces have pushed into the north, taking cities including Timbuktu apparently without a fight. Islamists there mostly fled town as their enemies advanced – but not before burning the main Orange telecoms relay and shooting up two others, says Maiga.

“When they realized the French were coming, they decided to cut all communications so people couldn’t give away their positions,” he says.

Today Timbuktu remains offline. Cell phones and the Internet are inaccessible, while the main Orange relay station is a twisted wreck of blackened metal and tumbled machinery. Maiga hopes to get new equipment in place in the coming days.

“They even burned the generator that powers the station, and the fuel tank, and they stole most of the backup batteries some time ago,” Maiga says. He paused, then spoke words that would be as true in many other contexts across northern Mali: “All these things need to be replaced.”