Dread haunts Malian town besieged by jihadists
TOGUÉRÉ-KOUMBÉ - With a trembling finger, Amadou Koita points to the square where he was lashed 30 times in public.
For several months, this remote town in central Mali was occupied by jihadist rebels who have unleashed a spiral of violence in the region.
As the army moved into Toguere-Koumbe, the Islamists moved out, shifting strategy to mount a siege.
Inside the town, many nurse traumatic memories of the rebels' brutal version of sharia law, and dread their return.
"I was accused of smoking a cigarette," said Koita, 55.
"The jihadists took me to this square. They brought out the Koran. After reciting verses, they decided that I should receive 30 lashes. And I was lashed in front of everyone."
An AFP correspondent was only able to visit the town by hitching a ride aboard a helicopter carrying Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, who made a show of support for the beleaguered region last week.
After the helicopter landed, carrying a large quantity of food for the town, Maiga was warmly greeted in the main square by several thousand people, many of them chanting "Mali! Mali!"
"If we are shouting 'Mali, Mali,' it's because this is the first time in more than five years that we've had anyone from the government who has come to see us," said Sandy Toure, a 55-year-old trader.
"We are no longer in the hands of the jihadists."
Two men, sitting next to a dilapidated building, said the rebels hoisted a black jihadi flag during their occupation this year, and swore the Malian flag would never again flutter over the town.
"Men were separated from women. The women were told to be veiled from head to toe. No-one could switch on a television. Our kids couldn't knock a football around. It was really hard," said another resident.
Several people said the jihadists were mainly Malian but some were from Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria -- a sign of the foreign influence in Mali's prolonged troubles.
The eighth largest country in Africa and one of the poorest in the world, the landlocked Sahel state has been grappling with violence since 2012.
Touareg rebels staged an uprising in northern Mali which jihadists then exploited to take over key cities.
The extremists were routed in a French-led military operation in 2013 but large stretches of the country remain out of government control.
In central Mali, the situation has been made even more unstable by a resurgence of violence between ethnic groups, notably Fulani nomadic herders and Dogon farmers over access to land.
Just a few kilometres (miles) from Toguere-Koumbe, the jihadists have placed mines on the roads and lurk aboard boats to control river traffic on a nearby tributary of the Niger, say local people.
Life in the town, which was already hard before the occupation, remains on hold.
"We cannot plough our fields without our animals -- hundreds of oxen have been stolen. The Malian state has to help us," said Oumar, a farmer, who said his livelihood had been destroyed.
With the jihadists choking off supplies to the town, "there is still no market or fair," said a housewife.
Many people are too afraid to leave the perimeter of the town, and army troops remained hunkered down inside it, carrying out patrols but never going out, locals said.
"You can't leave Toguere and you can't enter it," said a local official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
"Over the last month, three civilians in Toguere tried to leave but were seized by the jihadists.
"They are now being held hostage, just three kilometres (two miles) from the town centre."