In the last week of July, the Islamists sped into their nomadic camp and arrested them. They drove them to the city center, where they announced the couple would be stoned to death for adultery.
They dug a hole the size of a man and forced them to kneel inside. They made the villagers come out to see what Shariah was.
Then they cast the first stone.
The fear was now palpable on the streets of Timbuktu. Salaka and her boyfriend stopped seeing each other in public. When he came, they sat in the enclosed courtyard of her parents’ home, behind the veil of its chrome-red dirt walls.
Even in relatively modern Timbuktu, it was not considered appropriate to leave the couple alone in a room. So he arranged for a friend to loan him the keys to his empty house in a neighborhood less than a mile away.
Would she please join him there, just for an hour, once a week?
She hesitated. He begged her, saying he couldn’t be without her. They determined that the Islamic police stopped their patrols at 10 p.m.
She went once and got home safely. She went again.
They began meeting once a week. She insisted on staying no longer than 40 minutes. He brought her on his motorcycle, stopping close to the house and pushing the bike through a blanket of sand to avoid attention.
By this time, the Islamists were beating everyone from pregnant mothers and grandmothers to 9-year-olds for not covering themselves fully. A woman was no longer supposed to talk even to her own brother on the stoop of her house.
At a certain point Salaka knew they were going to get caught. She planned out what they would say.
In one version, she would say he was her uncle. In another she would call him her older brother. In yet another, they would try to pass off as a married couple.
On the night of Dec. 31, the two left Salaka’s house on a motorcycle, headed west and turned onto Road No. 160.
They passed the bread oven belonging to one of her mother’s competitors. They skirted an alley crowded with handmade bricks laid out to dry. They turned left, and then right again, taking a circuitous path to confuse anyone who might be following them.
When they got close, they chose the narrowest alleyways, used only by motorcycles and donkey carts instead of the Toyota pickup trucks of the Islamic police. They passed the house where they planned to meet and doubled back in an alley. He cut the motorcycle’s engine, told her to stay 100 yards behind him and pushed the bike through the sand as usual.
She watched him leave. She was breathing so hard she was afraid the stars could hear her. He passed the first intersection, then the second, and then the third.
The bearded men came on foot via the third intersection. There were four of them. Her lover jumped on his motorcycle and gunned it across the sand. He was the married one and would have paid the higher price.
She knew she couldn’t outrun them. So she stood. And in the moments it took for them to descend on her, she realized it would be futile to lie.
They took her to the headquarters of the Islamic police, inside a branch of the local bank. They shoved her into the closet-like space where the ATM machine is located and locked the gate behind her.
When she didn’t come home that night, her worried sister called her cell phone. The Islamic police answered and told her where Salaka was.
In the morning, her family came to slip her a piece of bread through the grills of the gate, feeding her like an animal at the zoo. Later that day, the police transferred her to a prison they had set up just for women in a wing of the city’s central jail. For the next three nights, she slept alone on a hard floor in a large, cement room.
On Jan. 3 they took her to the Islamic tribunal. Just eight days before French President Francois Hollande unilaterally approved a military intervention in Mali on Jan. 11, Salaka was convicted of being caught with a man who was not her husband and sentenced to 95 lashes. It was a severe punishment even by the standards of the Islamists.
They took her to the market at noon on Jan. 4, the same place where she bought the beef for the brochettes she sold and the flour used to make her mother’s flatbread. She recognized the meat sellers. One of them used his phone to record what happened next.
The police made her kneel in a traffic circle. They covered her in a gauze-like shroud. They told her to remove her dress, leaving only the thin fabric to protect her skin from the whip. Curious children jostled for a better view.
What they did to her was witnessed by dozens of people in Timbuktu, and can still be heard on the meat seller’s cell phone.Continued...