Although Timbuktu has long been a code word for the ends of the earth, until recently its women led a relatively modern existence, where they were not required to be covered and could socialize with men. That changed abruptly last year, when radical Islamists seized control of the northern half of Mali in the chaos after a coup in the distant capital.
When they first arrived, Hawi, a tall, fast-talking, sassy preteen girl, was just learning how to put on makeup. She learned the hard way to wear the toungou, the word for veil in the Songhai language. Her slender arm still bears the scar left by the whip of the Islamic police, her punishment for not properly covering up.
Her once-free life became increasingly restricted, as did that of her sisters and friends.
The Islamists showed no mercy, beating everyone from pregnant women to grandmothers to 9-year-old girls who weren't fully covered. Even talking to a brother on the front stoop of a woman's own home could get her in trouble.
The French military launched an intervention to oust the Islamists from power in northern Mali on Jan. 11, and rapidly forced their retreat from the major cities in less than three weeks.
The French arrived here before midnight on Monday in a unit of 600 soldiers, accompanied by 200 Malian troops. They included paratroops flown in from a base in Corsica, who landed in the north under the cover of darkness, as well as a convoy of 150 armored vehicles that simultaneously reached the town's western perimeter, according to a French military spokeswoman.
The Islamists were nowhere to be found. Once the airport was secure, the troops rolled into this city of earthen, dun-colored homes in a massive convoy.
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!"