Timbuktu residents warmly welcome French President Francois Hollande… (Fred Dufour / Pool Photo…)
TIMBUKTU, Mali — When singer Khalima Cisse woke up Saturday, she put on her finest gold-embroidered white dress — one that she had been forbidden from wearing during the fabled city's nearly yearlong occupation by tyrannical Islamist militias.
French President Francois Hollande was coming to town, less than a week after French-led forces ousted the extremists from the Saharan community known worldwide for its cultural treasures and its vibrant music.
Saturday was a day for singing, dancing, drumming, ululating and dressing up, all of which Cisse, 57, would probably have been flogged for doing under the severe form of sharia law imposed by the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine and its allies during their thuggish nine-month rule.
Thousands of Timbuktu residents gathered in the main square, used until recently by the zealots for public whippings and amputations, to cheer Hollande, who plunged into the crowd, beaming and clasping Malians' hands as part of a lightning-like visit.
"Last night I didn't sleep because I was ready to dance," said one celebrant, Intaly ag Khadawei, a prominent Timbuktu dancer. "It was like a prison for me when the [Islamists] were here, because I missed dancing so much. I felt an ache in my feet, because I didn't dance in almost a year."
Khadawei spent part of Saturday morning returning to a hiding place where he'd buried treasured family amulets when the militants conquered Timbuktu in April. At the celebration, he reverently hung them back around his neck. "I love to dance," he said. "It's not a job. I do it for happiness."
France, the onetime colonial power in Mali and much of West Africa, has been criticized in the region for past exploitation. But Hollande's intervention last month, just a day after Malian authorities called for help, resurrected the European nation's reputation overnight: the only Western power with boots on the ground, while neighboring countries dawdled about sending troops.
"The Africans, they were late. With the French it was the same day. We hope he's president forever," said Timbuktu shopkeeper Demba Dicko, 45.
Mali's weakened army lost the north of the country in April, as Islamist fighters swept through, seizing town after town, essentially partitioning the country. But the militias Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa overreached, and have been quickly swept from urban centers by a three-week operation that has included French airstrikes.
Hard work still lies ahead, French officials warn: It is time for African forces to take over, they say, a message Hollande repeated Saturday.
Still to be accomplished is dislodging the militants from mountains and caves in northern Mali; fixing a broken political system; wiping out criminal networks in the north whose kidnapping, drug smuggling and human trafficking bankroll extremism; and strengthening Mali's military forces so they can prevent the militias' revival once the French withdraw.
Saturday, however, was a day for joy and celebration.
Jewelry maker Lala Cisse, 56, donned several extravagant homemade strings of bright plastic beads, bracelets and an earring in the colors of the French flag. She could hardly stand still.
"I'm going to dance," she said, hurrying off into swirling desert.
Others, draped in French and Malian flags, sought desperately to touch Hollande, shouting, "Merci! Merci!" as they were greeted by the president and his entourage, whose neat Parisian shoes sank into the fine Saharan sand.
Many of the town's imams and officials arrived early, their flowing gowns frisked by French soldiers. The local butcher wore a set of cow horns on his head, part of his costume for celebrations.
"That's where they used to beat people," said Abdourahman Boujouma, 69, pointing to the center of the square. "People were not free; you were not allowed to meet in groups and talk to your friends. They destroyed mausoleums and mosques," he said, referring to Timbuktu's World Heritage treasure of ancient sites, many of which were torn apart because the extremists considered them un-Islamic.
"It wasn't life. If I ever find one of those jihadists, I'd like to eat him," he said, gesturing angrily, as though putting food into his mouth. "I'll never forget what they did here, for my whole life."
Singer Cisse picked up her shiny $180 dress from the tailor's shop a week before the militants arrived and had never worn it out until the French arrived because of the Islamists' rules banning women from beautifying themselves or wearing perfume. Occasionally, she would pull the dress out of the cupboard and finger it regretfully.
"I'd take it out and look at it and put it back. It made me feel sad," she said. "They came here and they said you're not practicing Islam very well. They would say you would look sexy in a dress like this. But how can an old woman like me be sexy?"