Schools reopen in Mali's Islamist-held Timbuktu

Schools reopened Monday in the city of Timbuktu for the first time since an Islamic faction seized control last month of the fabled tourist outpost, where they are now working to impose Shariah law.

Thousands of residents, including the majority of the city's Christian population, fled Timbuktu in early April, when disparate rebel factions invaded the northern half of Mali and declared independence.

Although the rebels initially claimed they were fighting for a separate homeland, it soon became clear that an Islamic faction within the larger rebel movement had the upper hand in Timbuktu. They have since attempted to impose the strict Islamic code, including the veiling of women and the banning of alcohol.

Mahmoud Djitteye, a member of the school district in Timbuktu, said that schools had reopened with the blessing of Ansar Dine, the Islamic faction whose fighters are garrisoned at the main military camp in the city. The faction has agreed to pay school fees and on Monday a small number of students arrived to register for classes, said Djitteye.

Alpha Cisse, the father of a student, said that the Islamists are requiring the separation of the sexes, with boys and girls alternating between morning and afternoon classes. Certain subjects have also disappeared from the curriculum.

"We're being told that certain subjects will be forbidden, like the teaching of philosophy and certain modules in biology, like the teaching of evolution," said Cisse. "Also there will be no mixed classes, with boys coming in the morning and girls in the afternoon, or boys in the afternoon and girls in the morning."

Timbuktu fell to the rebels on April 1. It was the last of the three major towns in the country's north — an area the size of France — to be seized by the ethnic Tuareg rebels, plunging Mali into crisis. In Timbuktu, as well as in the two other regional capitals of Gao and Kidal, the Islamist groups have smashed bars and ripped down posters of uncovered women. Although there is resistance by Tuareg rebels to the imposition of Shariah in this region known for its moderate interpretation of Islam, Ansar Dine has also won some supporters through the measures they have taken to restore law and order in the wake of the widespread looting led by various armed groups.

In Gao, also controlled by Ansar Dine, residents said that schools reopened on April 30.

"Here, the classes are mixed, but the boys sit on the first row of benches, while the girls sit in the back. In other classes, however, they've allowed only girls. Or only boys," said Hama Dada Toure, a teacher in Gao, who was reached by telephone on Monday.

A high school student in Gao who is preparing for the end-of-the-year baccalaureate exam, said that the mixing of the sexes is allowed in instances where the class is small.

"If a class has a lot of students, they separate the boys and the girls. But if there are only a few students, the boys sit in front and the girls in the back," said Abdoulaye Maiga. It's the first time that we are seeing something like this, but we can suffer through it so long as we get to study, because the situation has left us no choice."

In Kidal, the last major city in the north, schools are still closed. Ansar Dine also controls the town and a majority of families have fled the area, seeking refuge across the border in neighboring Algeria.