I have to admit that while
away from home I haven't been reading the papers - mainly because the ones available to me have been in either Hungarian, which I struggle with, or Romanian, which I have never studied at all. Nevertheless, even if I had been reading the ones I usually look at in Australia, I doubt I'd have come across much coverage of Mali.
Which is why, after arriving with nothing to read at one of Budapest's railway stations yesterday and consequently buying a copy of the International Herald-Tribune for the journey, it came as a shock to learn of some of the things that are going on in that country. It appears that, while we all gambol about relatively cheerfully in the twenty-first century, there are people in Mali who are in grave danger of being dragged back into the Middle Ages, if this report by Adam Nossiter is anything to go by:
Islamists who control northern Mali have publicly amputed the hand of a man they accused of robbery, continuing an increasingly harsh application of what the vast region's new masters consider sacred law.
The amputation took place on Wednesday morning in the town of Ansongo, downriver from the provincial capital, Gao, which is under the rule of an Islamist group that splintered off from Al-Qaeda called the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or Mujao. It was confirmed by a Mujao spokesman in Gao in a telephone interview and by the Malian government in a statement later from Bamako, the capital.
A witness in Ansongo said that the accused man's hand was "placed on a sort of table," in front of dozens of spectators in the town's main square. Then, "a gentleman with a sort of cutlass" - the witness desribed him as "an Arab" - swung hard and sliced off the man's hand, the witness said. "He cut it. There was a lot of blood."
"He held up the man's hand for the people, like a sort of trophy," the witness, a local teacher, said Thursday in a telephone interview from Ansongo. "He said, 'God is great.' It was barbaric."
He requested anonymity because he said it was dangerous to speak even over the telephone about what was going on in the town.
A spokesman for Mujao in Gao, Aliou Mahamar Toure, said Thursday by telephone: "They cut off the hand of a robber at Ansongo. Yes, yes, they did this. He was a thief. He stole. God has told us to cut off the hands of thieves. It's in the Koran."
Just 11 days ago, in the desert town of Aguelhok, Islamist allies of Mujao publicly stoned to death a young couple accused of having children outside wedlock. The stoning and now the amputation appear to signal an acceleration of the Islamists' determination to apply Shariah law to territory they conquered from the Malian government in March and April. Already, the Islamists have driven nearly 400,000 people to flee northern Mali and have spurred calls for a regional intervention force.
"The extremists who are occupying northern Mali have cut off the hand of an inhabitant of Ansongo, adding a new ignoble act to the long list of atrocities they have inflicted on the people," the Malian government said in a statement from Bamako. "The actions of the terrorists and drug traffickers, cloaked in a false veil of religion, reinforce the inevitability of military action."
In recent days, young people in Gao have resisted the harsh punishments, blocking Mujao's plan to amputate a robbery suspect publicly in the town by descending into the streets to protest.
The teacher said the Islamists chose to carry out the punishment at Ansongo "because it didn't come off at Gao."
But Mr Toure, the Mujao spokesman, denied that there was any connection between the forestalled amputation in Gao and its application in Ansongo, and he vowed to continue enforcing what he called religious law.
"Even at Gao, there are robbers whose hands we still want to cut, God willing," Mr Toure said.
The teacher said the amputee in Ansongo, who was accused of stealing cattle, did not cry out. Many spectators had approved, he said, because of the prevalence of theft in the region, for which he blamed nomadic Tuareg tribesmen.
"There were a lot of spectators," he said. Afterward the victim was taken to a local health centre, he said. "As an intellectual, I didn't appreciate this. These are ignoble, terrorist methods."
There is hope, I suppose, in the article, when one thinks of the young resisters in Gao. There is not much hope though in Mr Toure's statement that 'Even at Gao, there are robbers whose hands we still want to cut, God willing', nor in the admission that many of the spectators approved. Where did this sick thinking come from? How on earth do we make it go away?