They drew crowds so thick that at times, the armored personnel carriers came to a standstill. People waved homemade French flags sewn together from bolts of red, white and blue fabric. Hawi and her mother stood on the side of the road, screaming, ‘‘Vive la France!’’
The ecstatic women greeting the French were still covered in the all-enveloping veils imposed on them by the former Taliban-inspired occupiers. But hours after watching the French arrival, Hawi went home, folded up her veil and stuffed it away in her closet.
That same day, she pulled out the traditional pagne worn by women in much of sub-Saharan Africa. The Islamists considered it indecent because it was colorful and revealed the shoulders, arms and upper back.
By Tuesday, she dared to wear a pair of heels — also haram, or ‘‘forbidden’’ by the Islamic regime.
By Wednesday, she had found a newly opened women’s hair salon, where she had her hair braided for the first time in months. She opened her jewelry box and put on two bright cube-shaped earrings. Her mother pulled out her eyeliner.
It was on Thursday that they rummaged through their closet and found the envelope where they had hidden their Samsung phone’s memory card.
The Islamists had banned music of all kinds, including radios. When they realized young people were still listening to music using earphones, they began policing phones. During the final stages of the occupation, even ringtones became haram. People could not figure out how to change their cellphone settings, so for months many simply placed their phones on silent or on vibrate.
On Thursday, Hawi and her mother took out the memory card with the songs of a musician, a native of a village just 45 kilometers from the city. They went into the street, held up the tiny Samsung phone like a boombox and danced as they pumped it into the air.
Like her daughter, Hawi’s mother, Fatouma Arby, also has a scar — on her right wrist where the Islamic police lashed her after they found her standing outside her house. The Islamists had gradually expanded the public space where women were restricted from the town center, to the alleys blanketed in sand running like veins across Timbuktu, all the way to the threshold of their own homes.
They had even created a prison just for women the likes of Arby, a feisty, 40-something mother and tomboy who exulted Thursday in her release.
‘‘It’s been a very long time since I put on makeup,’’ she said, running her finger under her eye to show off the line of black kohl accenting it. ‘‘I've put it on to make myself beautiful. So that men see me, and find me beautiful.’’
A man she knows, a distant cousin, called out her name. She ran over to him and teasingly pulled his arm, as he pulled her back.
It was a tug-of-war between two people who for nearly a year could not so much as touch.
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Timbuktu, Mali.
Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at www.twitter.com/rcallimachi.