TIMBUKTU, Mali (Reuters) - For months, Salaha Najim would discreetly put up a satellite dish banned by the Islamist rebels in dusty Timbuktu, close the shutters of his house and turn on the television to watch soccer with the sound turned down.
On Saturday, the windows were open wide again and the volume was unashamedly loud as Mali’s national team, the Eagles, beat South Africa in a penalty shootout to reach the semifinals of the African Nations Cup.
Timbuktu’s residents poured into the streets to chant and honk horns at the end of an extraordinary week that began with French troops ending the 10 months of harsh Islamic rebel rule and finished with football triumph and thousands cheering a visit by French President Francois Hollande.
“The Islamists banned everything,” said Najim, beaming as he watched the game with two friends in his brown, flat-roofed house nestled in Timbuktu’s warren of streets. “But now I can watch games as loud as I want.”
A lightning three-week offensive by French air and ground forces has swiftly ended the occupation of Mali’s northern towns by a loose alliance of Islamist rebels linked to al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM.
Across Timbuktu, French and Malian flags now hang side-by-side to celebrate the liberation and residents cheer the French military convoys that regularly pass by. The town was for centuries a hub in trans-Saharan trade and a center of Islamic learning before becoming a tourist magnet in recent decades.
Street markets bustle as residents try to replenish store cupboards run down during months of isolation. But uncertainty lingers over whether Mali’s weak government and army can keep the Islamists at bay once French forces leave.
Months of conflict have also deepened rifts in the population. Most light-skinned Arabs and Tuaregs have fled Timbuktu after reprisal attacks against those accused of backing the Islamists.
“I will only say they are gone forever once I‘m told they’ve been hunted down,” said Moussa Djikke, an elderly resident sitting in the shade of a tree between the Sankore mosque and the Baba Ahmed Institute, two pillars of the town’s heritage.
The fleeing Islamists prompted an international outcry when they ransacked 2,000 ancient manuscripts from the Institute, compounding their destruction of Timbuktu’s sacred Sufi mausoleums, which they considered idolatrous.
Most of the city’s 300,000 ancient texts remain intact, however. “Our culture was being attacked. We were imprisoned. But now we are free,” said Djikke, fingering his prayer beads.
Today the town’s residents proudly flout the strict sharia laws the Islamists imposed on them.
Men no longer wear trousers rolled up to just beneath their knees, in imitation of the Prophet Mohammed. Women are free to appear unveiled in bright traditional African dress, and people of both sexes mingle in the streets as they want.
Outside a streetside stall, residents gather to listen to songs by Haire Arbi, a popular local singer who fled last year when the Islamists banned music. Nearby, cigarette sellers are doing brisk trade.
The Hotel Colombe, whose corridors adorned with pictures of local tourist spots were shut off for months, sprang to life overnight.
“The day (the Islamists) came into town, they forced us to shut and destroyed our alcohol,” said employee Mahamane Toure.
Under the Islamist occupation, Toure spent his days drinking tea and reading novels, punctuated only by visits to the mosque. His beard grew so long it reached almost to his belly button and he shared what little food he could find with his neighbors.
Then French armored vehicles rolled into town on January 28 and he opened his doors to the wave of foreign journalists who followed, filling the hotel’s 50 long-abandoned rooms.
“When I woke up that day, I had no idea it would change so quickly,” he said, juggling phone calls. One was an urgent appeal to a relative in Bamako to dispatch beer as stocks dug up from the desert, where they had been hidden for months, were already running ran dry.
Amid the relief, the scars of occupation remain. Black and white billboards bearing Islamist messages still stand by the roadside. One, at the gates of the town, welcomes residents to the seat of the application of sharia.
The Malian Solidarity Bank has the word “Police” scrawled on its beige walls. It served as the headquarters of the Islamic police, which meted out punishments including whipping and amputation to those accused of breaking Islamic law.
Residents said the booth for the bank’s cash dispenser had been used to detain female prisoners, sometimes dozens at a time.
Down the road at a sandy junction, nicknamed “Afghanistan” by locals after it became a gathering point for heavily armed militants, there are signs of the ethnic divisions exacerbated by the conflict.
The doors of shops belonging to Arab traders, accused of having links with the Islamists, are broken open: looted in the days since the Islamists’ departure.
“We used to like the Arabs. We thought they were good. But we no longer trust them,” said Albert Toure, a 28-year-old who makes leather shoes. “We are tired. What we now need is security.”
Editing by Daniel Flynn and Kevin Liffey