TIMBUKTU, Mali – The bodies are buried here, in the side of a dune less than a mile outside this desert capital, dumped out of sight in a forgotten and uninhabited zone.
Except the wind undressed the grave.
It threw off the blanket of yellow sand to reveal a white piece of clothing. Soon the children of the shepherds who spend their days roaming the dunes with their flocks began talking about the two men buried there.
By the time journalists were led to the shallow grave 11 days after the two were last seen, the desert dwellers knew their entire biography: their names, their professions, the fact that they had been arrested by Malian soldiers on the same day that the French took control of Timbuktu from Islamic extremists. Most importantly, they knew their ethnic group — both were Arab.
Their deaths, as pieced together by The Associated Press from interviews with family members, residents and witnesses, as well as from an examination of the bodies, strongly suggest the two were summarily executed by Malian forces, in reprisal against the city's Arab minority.
Ever since al-Qaida-linked extremists seized control of Mali's northern half last year, the international community has discussed launching a military intervention to free the occupied territory. For nearly as long, the United Nations as well as the United States has urged caution, in part over worries that Mali's abuse-prone military could carry out acts of revenge against the ethnic minorities which were associated with the extremists — including Arabs.
Despite these warnings, France unilaterally launched a military operation exactly one month ago to take back the north, after the al-Qaida-linked fighters began pushing southward. The French swept through northern villages and towns, accompanied by Malian army troops, and liberated Timbuktu on Monday, Jan. 28.
It was around 10 that morning, as French troops in armored personnel carriers were still basking in the cheers of the crowds welcoming them, that Malian soldiers in pickup trucks sped up to the Nour El-Moubin Madrassa, a Quranic school. The headmaster of the school was a longtime Arab resident of Timbuktu, Mohamed Lamine. He was wearing a white boubou, a flowing robe like those worn to the mosque by the Wahabi, she said, an ultraconservative sect accused of supporting the Islamic extremists.
His young wife was just returning from running an errand when she saw about six soldiers leading away her husband and a close friend, Mohamed Tidiane, a businessman who sold carpets imported from near the Algerian border.
"I saw they had bandaged his eyes," said Ani Boka Arby, Lamine's wife. "Since that day, we haven't seen him."
Arabs and Tuaregs make up less than 15 percent of Mali's population of 16 million, and most of them live in the north, according to estimates by the U.S. State Department. While they have lived in Mali peacefully for years, activists fear that they will now be targeted by those seeking retaliation for the Islamic extremists' occupation.
In the first three weeks of the military intervention that began on Jan. 11, Human Rights Watch documented the summary executions of at least 13 suspected supporting the Islamic radicals, and the disappearance of five others in the garrison town of Sevare and the nearby village of Konna.
In the group's report, published last week, witnesses described soldiers at a bus station in Sevare detaining passengers suspected of association with the rebels, as the men frantically tried to find someone in the crowd to vouch for them. The soldiers drove or marched the men to a nearby field, shot them and dumped their bodies into four wells, according to the witnesses.
On the day her husband was arrested, Arby, who had been married for just four months, ran to her parents' house. Although everyone from shepherds to hotel waiters to the young men who jog across the dunes at sunset seemed to know the location of her husband's grave, she had not ventured there because she was afraid of the soldiers. A team of AP reporters offered to take her there.
Arby and her parents left early on Friday morning, carrying a shovel. When the car could not pass, they got out and padded across the dune, which has a rippled texture that looks like the bottom of the ocean.
They walked in silence until they reached a spot marked by desert grasses.
At the point where the dune met the plain, they saw a rise in the sand — and a piece of white cloth poking through. They scraped away a bit of the dune, and saw the folds of a man's robe, the long kind that covers the torso.
Bokar Faraji, the wife's father, climbed down with the shovel.
The young woman seemed to fold inwards. She sat down on the lip of the dune and pulled her veil around her face. When the body began to emerge, she said she recognized her husband's robe. When she saw his black pants, she began to sob.
"Be strong," said her father, Bokar Faraji.
Gently, he scraped away the sand near the corpse's head. Tufts of hair appeared. Then a bullet fell out of the sand.
The father picked it up, and threw it back.
Mohamed Lamine, a man in his 50s, was lying face down in the dune. His friend, the carpet seller, lay nearby in the same blue boubou he was wearing when he was loaded into the military pickup. Overwhelmed, the family stopped, then shoveled the dirt back.
A spokesman for the Malian military in Timbuktu, Capt. Samba Coulibaly, declined to answer questions about the discovery of the body. "I don't know anything about it," he told the AP by telephone.
Residents say it's possible Lamine had ties to the Islamic rebels, who imposed their brutal, unyielding form of Islam on the relatively moderate Muslim culture that has long been the norm in this landlocked, Saharan nation. His detractors point out that his school was allegedly built with funds from Saudi Arabian sponsors, and that he is a relative of Sanda Abou Mohamed, a leader of the radical Ansar Dine Islamic group that ruled Timbuktu for the past 10 months.
His family doesn't deny the family tie to the Ansar Dine leader, but claims Lamine was not part of the armed group — why else, they argue, would he have stayed in Timbuktu when most of the city's Arab population had fled in fear of reprisal?
"On Monday, when he was taken away, my daughter came running home to tell me that her husband had been arrested," Arby's father said as he stood over his son-in-law's grave. "I told her not to worry, be strong. Because if he has done something wrong, we have courts, and he will be judged. I believe in our system of justice. I believe in the army of Mali."
"Now I don't know what to do," he said. "What should I say? What should I tell my daughter who has tears streaming down her face?"