TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) — The love story in this fabled desert outpost began over the phone, when he dialed the wrong number. It nearly ended with the couple's death at the hands of Islamic extremists who considered their romance "haram" — forbidden.
What happened in between is a study in how al-Qaida-linked militants terrorized a population, whipping women and girls in northern Mali almost every day for not adhering to their interpretation of the strict moral code known as Shariah. It is also a testament to the violent clash between the brutal, unyielding Islam of the invaders and the moderate version of the religion that has long prevailed in Timbuktu, once a center for Islamic learning.
Salaka Djicke is a round-faced, big-boned girl with the wide thighs still fashionable in the desert, an unforgiving terrain that leaves many women without curves. Until the Islamists came and upended her world, the 24-year-old lived a relatively free life.
During the day, she helped her mother bake bread in a mud oven, selling each puffy piece for 50 francs (10 cents). In the afternoon, she grilled meat on an open fire and sold brochettes on the side of the road. She saved the money she earned to buy herself makeup and get her hair styled.
Like her sisters and friends, she spoke openly with men — including the stranger who called her by mistake more than a year ago.
The man thought he was calling his cousin. When he heard Salaka's voice, he apologized. His voice was polite but firm, with the authoritative cadence of a man in his prime. Hers was flirtatious, and her laugh betrayed her youth.
They started talking.
A few days later, he called her again. For two weeks, they spoke nearly every day, until he asked for directions to her house.