A town of fables? More like the stuff of nightmares.

Up until recently, Mali wasn’t a country we heard too much about, and for most, Timbuktu was just a town of fables.  But ever since April’s military coup, barely a week goes by without a worrying news report from the West African country.

This week, we hear that a couple has been stoned to death for engaging in extramarital affairs.

The New York Times reports that “Islamists”, armed with Kalashnikovs, brought the couple into the centre of the town of Aguelhok, and in front of about 200 people, the man and woman were forced into holes about four feet deep, with their heads protruding. Stones were then pelted at their heads until they died.

A spokesperson from the Islamic group Ansar Dine, which now controls northern Mali, said that the couple had been executed according to Sharia law.

Amnesty has today denounced the killing as a ‘gruesome and horrific act’ and has pointed out that a chilling climate of fear has wrapped across the northern part of Mali ever since the armed opposition groups took control.  

Through intimidation, and physical violence including deliberate and arbitrary killings, the armed groups which have taken control have enforced dress codes for both women and men, banned all music except religious music, and have forbidden men and women to sit next to each other on a bus or to walk down the street together if they are not married.

Dress codes imposed on women include them being forbidden to wear skirts which show their legs, or have braided hair extensions.  Women are also forced to go out veiled and to wear socks to hide their feet while men have to shorten their trousers to the tibia to show their ankles.

These worrying reports come on a day when Amnesty publishes its new report into the human rights chaos in the region as documenting dozens of cases of enforced disappearances, unlawful killings and torture.   The report details brutal abuses committed by soldiers loyal to the military Junta against soldiers and police officers involved in the attempted counter-coup on 30 April 2012.

The northern part of Mali is now in a pretty desperate place.  The towns and villages surrounding Timbuktu is certainly not the magical land of fantasy and romance that I conjured in my mind when I was younger.  Right now, it’s become the stuff of nightmares.

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