Special report from Mali: You could not recognise the bodies of dead jihadis as human

Kim Sengupta reaches the Malian town of Diabaly – the first place to be liberated by French forces from rebel control

The gravediggers had fled, the cemetery was shut down. The family of Shekan Kandaku had no choice. They buried him in their backyard inside a locked shed in case the jihadists found and desecrated the body.

The 45-year-old farmer was shot dead in Diabaly the day the town fell to the Islamist fighters a week ago, just after France began its military mission in Mali. He was the victim of violence the Islamists carried out as they imposed their rules on a town they had taken in a counter-offensive, led by Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior commander of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim ).

Today, Diabaly became the first town to be retaken by the Malian forces and their French allies, a development of symbolic as well as strategic significance.

Those residents who had not fled were free to speak of their experience in the hands of the rebels, of the foreigners among them, of brown-skinned gunmen who spoke English and a few who looked like Europeans who kept to themselves.

The relations of Shekan Kandaku – a father of three children – aged eight months, four and seven – did not know the nationality of the men who had shot him as he made his way home in the afternoon.

"My brother is a farmer, he is well built so perhaps they thought he was in the military," 56-year-old Sidi Mohammed told The Independent. "Some of them ordered him to stop and follow them. He started and then became scared, he dived into a house and they ran after him. He was trying to climb over a wall at the back when they chased him and shot him in the leg. He still managed to climb over the wall, but another of those bad men had gone around to the other side and they shot him in the head. Then they went away, firing in the air to celebrate."

A relatively small number of civilians were killed. The jihadists had searched homes for soldiers and policemen; having failed to find them, they had executed three heads of households. Around a dozen Malian soldiers died in the fighting before the arrival of French air power swung the battle decisively. The grim effect on the ground was there to see: the gun-mounted four-wheel drive of the rebels turned into burned, twisted wreckage by missile strikes.

"At the end they were just trying to escape and that is what happened," said Mohammed Fiqri pointing at three charred vehicles. "One of them wasn't hit – they pulled the bodies into that one and drove away. You could not recognise the bodies as human beings."

The jihadists were too busy fighting in their sojourn to pursue the uncompromising and punitive religious agenda which had marked their rule in cities further north such as Timbuktu and Gao.

Women were told to cover up and the fighters left with the warning that it was divine will that Sharia would come. They also left the lethal means by which their version of it will be brought about – booby traps packed with explosives and ammunition, grenades, mortars and a few missiles, which they could not carry away.

"They told us to leave our home for two hours. When we came back we found those," said Jenoba Sisso. Two mines, activated by pressure plates, had been placed into the earth outside her home. "I have six grandchildren, praise to Allah they had not been killed."

But the rebels also tried to win over the dwindled population of the town, giving out money and ordering shopkeepers to give free food to the poorer families. "There were Malians among them who tried to be helpful. But there were others from the Tamashek [a northern tribe] who were very harsh," said Madibu Traore, a shopkeeper.

"There were also people who only spoke in English to each other, they looked a bit like Arabs, but they weren't Arabs. There were also some people who looked European, but they were few in numbers and they did not mix with the others."

There were repeated reports of English speaking jihadists from residents. "I definitely heard them and there's no chance that I made a mistake with another language. They spoke like they were from England, but had darker skins," said Amadu Dumbia, a 23-year-old student of English at university in the capital, Bamoko.

His father, Jakarja, an advisor at the mayor's office, cautioned: "Just because they spoke in English does not mean they were from Britain, there were a lot of foreigners of different nationalities here from Chad, Mauritania, some Afghans and some Pakistanis."

An earlier visit to the Diabaly region by another group from abroad – a party of Muslim clerics from Mauritania –and their fate, was a factor in the reaction of the jihadists in Diabaly. Their Toyota minibus was stopped by Malian soldiers who dismissed their claim of going to a conference in Bamako. Sixteen of the 17 in the party were shot dead; the government blamed the massacre on troops acting without authority and expressed regret.

"Some of the Islamists were really angry about this, they wanted revenge," said Maroush Jakati. "They said what happened showed that our government was against Allah and on the side of the crusaders. One of them said he was going to kill 16 foreign soldiers in revenge. If he did not do it this time, he will do it in the future. We shall have this violence going on all the time, it is very bad psychologically. A lot of people who have left Diabaly will not come back."

Moussa Manta is one of those with haunted memories. In his desperate attempt to escape from his pursuers, Shekan Kandaku had hammered at his door.

"He was one of my closes friends, but I did not know it was him at the door. There was shooting and shouting and I was scared. I did not open the door; he was my friend and I did not open the door," he said. "That is what the Islamists did to us, they made us feel fear all the time."

But amid the strife and despair there were also signs of hope and life.

A teenage couple were walking along holding hands. "If the jihadists catch you, you will be whipped," shouted out a stallholder with a laugh. "Don't worry they have gone," the young man responded. "Soon they will be gone from everywhere in our country, people will not stand for what they do."

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