For months, Salaha Najim would discreetly put up a satellite dish banned by the Islamist rebels in dusty Timbuktu, close the shutters of his house and turn on the TV to watch football with the sound turned down.
But this Saturday, the windows were open wide and the volume was loud as Mali’s national team, the Eagles, beat South Africa in a penalty shootout to reach the semi-finals of the African Nations Cup.
After the victory, Mali’s captain, Seydou Keita, acknowledged the political significance of the result, saying: “Our win ensures that Malians can hold their heads high. They will all be celebrating and for us to provide the joy is an honour.”
Keita, 33, wore a Malian flag draped over his shoulder to the post-match press conference.
“I’m wearing the flag that is flying in the north now as proudly as it is flying in the south,” he said, referring to towns recaptured in recent days.
Timbuktu’s residents poured into the streets to chant and honk horns at the end of an extraordinary week that began with French troops ending the ten months of harsh Islamic rebel rule and finished with football triumph and thousands cheering a visit by French president François Hollande.
“The Islamists banned everything,” said Najim, beaming as he watched the game with two friends. “But now I can watch games as loud as I want.”
A lightning three-week offensive by French air and ground forces ended the occupation of Mali’s northern towns by a loose alliance of Islamist rebels linked to al-Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM. Across Timbuktu, French and Malian flags now hang side-by-side to celebrate.
But uncertainty lingers over whether Mali’s weak government and army can keep the Islamists at bay once French forces leave. Months of conflict have also deepened rifts in the population – most light-skinned Arabs and Tuaregs have fled Timbuktu after reprisal attacks against those accused of backing the Islamists.
“I will only say they are gone forever once I’m told they’ve been hunted down,” said Moussa Djikke, an elderly resident sitting in the shade of a tree between the Sankore mosque and the Baba Ahmed Institute, two pillars of the town’s heritage.
The fleeing Islamists prompted an international outcry when they ransacked 2,000 ancient manuscripts from the Institute, and destroyed Timbuktu’s sacred Sufi mausoleums. “Our culture was being attacked. We were imprisoned. But now we are free,” added Djikke.
Today the town’s residents proudly flout the sharia laws the Islamists imposed on them. Men no longer wear trousers rolled up to just beneath their knees, in imitation of the Prophet Mohammed. Women appear unveiled and both sexes mingle in the streets as they want.
By a streetside stall, residents gather to listen to songs by Haire Arbi, a popular local singer who fled last year when the Islamists banned music. Nearby, cigarette sellers are doing brisk trade.
The Hotel Colombe sprang to life overnight when French armoured vehicles rolled into town on 28 January. Employee Mahamane Toure opened the doors to a wave of foreign journalists who followed the troops, filling the hotel’s 50 long-abandoned rooms.
“When I woke up that day, I had no idea it would change so quickly,” he said, juggling phone calls. One was an urgent appeal to a relative in Bamako to dispatch beer as stocks dug up from the desert, where they had been hidden for months, were already running dry.
But amid the relief, the scars of occupation remain. Billboards bearing Islamist messages still stand by the roadside – one welcomes residents to the seat of the application of sharia.
And the doors of shops belonging to Arab traders – accused of having links with the Islamists – lie broken open, looted after the Islamists’ departure.
“We used to like the Arabs. We thought they were good. But we no longer trust them,” said Albert Toure, 28. “We are tired. What we now need is security.”