By BABA AHMED and RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, The Associated Press
BAMAKO, Mali -- Speaking from his hospital bed, a young man whose hand and foot were amputated this week by the radical Islamic group controlling northern Mali described an agony unlike any other – "a pain that made me forget everything."
Youssoufa Hamidou borrowed the phone of a hospital attendant and braved the guards posted outside his door to call a journalist hundreds of miles (kilometers) away in Mali's capital and tell the world what he went through.
He is one of five cousins, all in their 20s, and all but one from the village of Fafa, who were convicted of carrying out highway robberies.
It's a crime punishable by double amputation, according to the strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah that is being applied with increasing frequency in the northern half of Mali, which fell to al-Qaida-linked rebels five months ago. Since then, an adulterous couple was stoned to death, a thief's hand was cut off and numerous people, including women, have been publicly whipped.
Monday's amputations of the five cousins in the northern city of Gao shows how much Mali, once praised for its democracy and whose undulating deserts and camel caravans were a magnet for Western tourists, has changed in just a few short months.
"When it was my turn, they took me blindfolded, and tied my right arm and my left leg just above the ankle with plastic ties to stop the circulation," Hamidou said. "Suddenly I felt a pain in my right hand that was out of this world. My hand had just been chopped off. They put a compress on it. Very quickly they cut off my left foot, and they also put a compress on it to stop the bleeding."
"At first I was afraid – but the pain I felt made me forget everything, even my fear. Then the Islamists put us in a car and drove us to the hospital."
The 25-year-old spoke to The Associated Press on a phone handed to him by a hospital worker. He spoke in his native Sonrai language in a voice so weak that, at times, the attendant had to take the phone back to relay his words. The interview, conducted over several hours Tuesday evening, was interrupted more than once when the guards posted by the militants checked on the amputees.
Before the north fell to the rebels in April, Hamidou and his cousins belonged to the Gandakoy, a self-defense militia made up of people from the Sonrai ethnic group.
"When our militia was chased out we held on to our weapons, and we used them to hold up buses on the road between Gao and Niger. That was until someone denounced us" to the Islamists, said Hamidou.
North Mali's Islamist rulers make public spectacles of the brutal Shariah punishments.
Ibrahim Toure said he was talking with friends near the public square in Gao, some 750 miles (1,000 kilometers) northeast of Bamako, when the Islamists drove up and ordered people to gather around.
"We understood that they were going to carry out a Shariah punishment, but we could not have imagined what was about to happen," Toure said.
The crowd tried to enter the square, but the fighters stopped them. "The Islamists told us to go outside the square, and to stay behind the iron bars that encircle it. ... It was then that we started to really worry, because normally when they whip people, they let us inside. ... So we realized that something even more horrible was about to happen."
Toure and his friends watched as the fighters brought out a chair and tied its legs and back with a rope to a pillar on a stage inside Independence Square. Then the long-bearded "cadi," or Islamic judge, arrived and gave a sermon, saying that within the territory the Islamic militants control Shariah law would be applied.
"He said that for highway robbers, Shariah calls for the right hand and left foot to be cut off. And that four people had already had their limbs cut off. And immediately a small child came running out of one of the cars with a bag. We saw that it was dripping with blood," said Toure.
The judge said the chopped off hands and feet of four of the accused were inside the bag. The fifth man's limbs would be amputated in public in order to serve as a lesson.
The militants then brought the young accused robber out of the car, and pushed him toward the chair.
"It was unbelievable. The young man, he just followed calmly," said Toure. "He had his eyes closed with a bandage. ... He put out his hand to be cut, then he put out his foot to be cut. ... He didn't cry out, he didn't even move. It's my impression that they must have drugged him – if not how can you accept to let someone cut off your limbs?"
One of the doctors who helped treat the amputees, said the Islamists initially came to the hospital and asked the medics to carry out the amputations.
"We categorically refused," said the doctor, whose name is being withheld by AP out of concern for his safety.
The fighters left, and returned sometime later, carrying in the five young men who were trailing blood, he said.
"We could see that their feet had been badly amputated. They were in indescribable pain. You could read that on their faces," the doctor said. "To treat them, we were forced to break the bones in their feet, so that the skin could cover the bone, which was poking out."
Last week, the government in Bamako, which still controls the southern half of Mali, asked the 15 nations in western Africa for military help to take back the north. Radical militants in northern Mali were drawing disaffected youth from other countries, warned the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, in an opinion piece published in The New York Times titled "Why Mali Matters?" The situation in Mali threatens to create an arc of instability across the neck of Africa, he said.
On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross called the situation in northern Mali "more and more alarming." Western powers and Mali's government in the south have spoken out over the abuses in the north.
Aliou Mahamar Toure, the Islamic police commissioner in Gao, said Shariah law distinguishes between unarmed thieves and those who rob at gunpoint, a crime that requires a greater punishment. He said the Islamists were only carrying out the word of God, and that they had done everything they could to make the amputees as comfortable as possible.
"We took them to the hospital. ... Today we gave them new clothes," he said. "And we have put them in an air-conditioned room. When this is over, we will give them money – like a gift. ... They are now Muslims like us. They are our brothers."
Callimachi contributed from Dakar, Senegal