GAO, Mali – The Islamists in Mali came to Issa Alzouma's cell and brought him out to the public square they had renamed Place de Shariah. They laid him out, tying down his arms and legs before amputating his right hand with a knife.
"I passed out from the pain," the 39-year-old father of three recalled, the stump still wrapped in gauze more than a month later. "The next thing I knew I was in the hospital."
Alzouma still carries the worn, folded piece of paper he was given upon his discharge from the hospital in December after five days there. Dagnosis: Amputation, it says.
The northern Malian town of Gao has been celebrating the departure of the radical Islamists after nearly 10 months in power. But the French military intervention that caused the armed Islamists to flee came too late for Alzouma and the other men who lost their hands and probably their livelihoods too when the militants carried out amputations as punishments for theft and other alleged crimes under Shariah, or strict Islamic law.
Alzouma, the last prisoner in Gao to have his hand chopped off, doesn't know how he will support his wife and three children. He used to dig for gravel for a living.
"Even for men with two hands, there is no work to be found," he says, sitting on a mat inside his thatched hut in a sand-blanketed neighborhood of Gao.
When the Islamists first took over Gao last April, Alzouma says they talked about Islam and the importance of being a good Muslim. Only later, he says, did they start imposing their strict rule.
At first, they told people that cigarettes were bad and that they shouldn't smoke. Then women were told not to go out into the streets alone. Only later did they begin whipping those who went out in public without a veil. In total, they carried out nine amputations in Gao, residents say, and several others in the nearby town of Ansongo.
In November, Alzouma was traveling by motorcycle between his home village and Gao when the Islamists arrested him and accused him of espionage. Alzouma denied it, and said he had been lingering on the road only because he was changing a faulty plug on his motorcycle's engine. Later, the Islamists said witnesses had seen him breaking into a nearby store.
He says there was no trial. A neighbor later came by their home to tell his wife Fatimata that his hand had been cut off.
How would she explain to their 7-year-old son Ousmane why his father had no hand, she wanted to know. When they went to visit him in the hospital, Ousmane cried at the sight of his father's bandaged stump.
After his amputation, Alzouma bought his wife a veil with the donations they'd received. She only wore it once to the market, she says, before the French-led mission ousted the Islamists. Today, she wraps her head in a teal-colored cloth and notes that she is pressed more than ever to leave the family's hut.
She now bears the weight of responsibility for their family's future, she explains, as she packages charcoal in plastic bags to sell for income. Alzouma helps watch over the children. A teary 2-year-old Modibo clings to his father's side.
Alzouma cannot afford pain medication, but he returns every 10 days to the hospital to have his dressing changed. He hopes that one day he can get a prosthesis that will give him back some functionality. He knows, though, he will not be able to dig gravel as he did before.
"Each day when I pray I ask God 'What can I do to survive? How can I support my family?'" he says.
The militants said they cut off his hand in accordance with Islamic law. Alzouma, though, says to subject him and his children to a life of poverty is not in accordance with his faith.
"They said they were Muslims, but they are not," he said. "They are criminals."