IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'We were so terrified': Jihadists leave trail of destruction, brutality in Mali town

A ripped up image of Jesus Christ is left on the ground of a Catholic church in Diabaly on Tuesday.
A ripped up image of Jesus Christ is left on the ground of a Catholic church in Diabaly on Tuesday.Issouf Sanogo / AFP - Getty Images

DIABALY, Mali -- Burned-out cars lie at the entrance to liberated Diabaly. Nearby, the stench of death rises from the window of an army vehicle discarded by the side of the road; inside are the bodies of four Malian soldiers, presumably slaughtered by jihadists.

The Islamist army stormed through the town last week and left a destructive trail. They ruined the church, smashing away its cross and decapitating religious statues. They looted the pharmacy and destroyed homes. They were joined by Malian soldiers who defected, according to some local residents.

Although the insurgents controlled Diabaly for only a few days, its terrified residents cheered when they left and French and Malian soldiers swept in.

"They are not Muslims," 53-year-old resident Oua Diarra said. "Muslims cannot be thieves. Muslims cannot loot. These men were terrorists.

"The Islamists punished the children simply for crying at the terrible things that they saw ... We were so terrified."

The jihadists were driven out before they could impose their form of Shariah law over the town's 40,000 people. They had said that they would do so once their grip on the town had been consolidated.

"Most of us, the people of the town, had not been touched by the Islamists, but we knew that it would not be long," said one man who brought his family into the town square to shake hands and take photographs with the French soldiers. "They had threatened to punish anyone who broke their laws." 

Gruesome propaganda videos from militant groups operating in Mali offer a glimpse of life in the militant-controlled north of the country. They include footage of men being lashed at a public ceremony. One video appears to show a man having his hand sliced off.

"The Islamists came with food and said they would soon teach us Islamic law," said Mema Diakate, a resident who giggled with her girlfriends in the town's center. "We knew that eventually we would not be able to stand here -- to come outside and laugh and lead our lives."

Many residents in Diabaly described the rebels as "outsiders" and "foreigners" and said they included some "Arab men." They claim fighters from Chad, Somalia and even Afghanistan were among them. Others were deserters from the Malian army who, having failed to protect the town from the militants, dumped their uniforms and joined the enemy.

Although most residents were delighted by the arrival of the French, many were critical of the inability of the Malian army to hold the garrison town.

They recall dozens of fighters -- perhaps as many as 200 -- managing to flee in a convoy of 4x4 vehicles. Some headed north into the desert -- others vanished into forest. Many may have scattered and concealed themselves in the community.

As the French advance north from Diabaly, they are progressing slowly in the knowledge that while their enemy is melting away, it hasn't disappeared.


African troops, US airlift join Mali operation

ANALYSIS: Why France is taking on Mali extremists

France and Mali set aside colonial past to fight new common foe

PhotoBlog: Eerie photo of French soldier in Mali upsets military officials