TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) — The first sign of change came as our convoy of food aid and medicine pulled up to the last northern town held by the Malian army. The atmosphere was tense as the heavily armed troops searched our car and baggage. Even my toothbrush was apparently suspect.
"We're looking for weapons," a soldier snapped.
"But there's only food here," one of the convoy leaders replied lightheartedly. Normally a joke like that would break the tension in Mali, but the soldier just continued his search, stony faced.
The reinforced roadblock was erected in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Mopti, 400 miles (600 kilometers) and a daylong drive from the Malian capital of Bamako. To the north lies my hometown, the fabled city of Timbuktu, now in the hands of two armed rebel groups.
Two months ago Tuareg rebels declared an independent state in the north amid a power vacuum created by the March 21 coup that ousted Mali's longtime leader. The Malian army was forced from the north as the Tuareg fighters descended on Timbuktu.
The first group was secular and claimed to be fighting for an independent homeland for the Tuaregs, a nomadic Muslim people who live in four nations in the region. They were quickly superseded by a group of Islamist fighters known as Ansar Dine, or Defenders of Islam, whose goal is to impose Shariah law in the area they now call the Azawad nation.
The Malian soldiers were especially suspicious of me. Unlike the black African inhabitants of southern Mali — whose members dominate the army — I am light-skinned. I look Tuareg, even though I am from one of the Arab tribes that long ago settled in Timbuktu. That makes me suspect, since I look like the fighters that took over the north.
I was faced with aggressive and suspicious looks. When I tried to go out for a walk, a colleague quickly stopped me and told me I was better off staying inside until the convoy was moving again.
When dawn came, we headed toward the rebel-controlled zone.
We got our first glimpse of the men who now run northern Mali when two pickup trucks flashed their headlights at us through the morning mist. These were the Islamic fighters of Ansar Dine who were to be our escorts to Timbuktu.
There were around a dozen of them, dressed in sand-colored uniforms with turbans on their heads. Each had a Kalashnikov. One of the trucks had a heavy machine gun mounted on the back.
Despite their fearsome appearance, the men were polite. Later, when some of the cars in the convoy got stuck in sand they helped dig them out.
We headed north and came to the first checkpoint — manned by the Tuareg rebels, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad. It felt like we were entering another country.
When I was growing up in Timbuktu in the 1990s, the region was for the most part peaceful and open to the outside world. Tourists would picnic under the stars on the sand dunes around the city and visit libraries of ancient manuscripts — a reminder that Timbuktu was a center of Islamic learning as far back as the 12th century.
Things have changed.
As we approached the city, I was expecting to see the usual crowd of women and children scrambling to meet passing cars to try to sell the goods they produce, like butter, milk and charcoal.
This time no one was there. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled northern Mali in the last few months.
We arrived in Timbuktu at around 10 p.m. and I went straight to my neighborhood. Usually at this time of night, streetlights would be on and the sounds of TV and radio would be heard from streetside stalls, where people gather to watch a film or the latest soap opera.
But there were no lights, the TV signal had been cut and the only radio station still on the air did not have night broadcasts. The area was silent and totally dark.
I was happy to see my family and know they were safe, but the town was not the lively place I had known. Buildings were looted and damaged during the rebel takeover. Banks were closed. Many aid organizations have stopped working. The city felt empty.
At the same time, the Islamist rebel group implemented welfare programs to try to win over the population. They distributed food to the needy, eliminated costly municipal and import taxes and offered free health care at the public hospital, not insignificant measures in a remote desert outpost hundreds of miles from the nearest metropolis.
A large percentage of Timbuktu's population of 54,000 had fled, but the hospital was doing a brisk business, drawing patients from surrounding areas.
"My two children were suffering from malaria. The doctors saw them and gave me the medicine for free. Now my children have been cured," said Fady Yattara, who traveled 80 miles (130 kilometers) from the town of Dire with her two daughters. They were hospitalized for a week.
Ansar Dine is also investing in the hospital's upkeep, attending to details the Malian government frequently ignored.
"Ansar Dine is taking care of the maintenance of the hospital's generator and is providing the diesel to run it. So even when there's a power cut in the city, the hospital can continue to function. They even changed the air conditioners that were broken in some of the rooms," said Seydou Bassaloum, a hospital supervisor.
At the main market, merchants said they no longer pay taxes on imported merchandise.
"I'm happy with Ansar Dine because since they are here, I no longer pay taxes and the customs officers no longer bother me," said Mokhtar Ould Sidi, who sells flour imported from Algeria. "The downside is I don't have any customers since most of the population has left town."
For many residents an even bigger downside is that Ansar Dine has started to enforce Islamic law in Timbuktu, a city that long practiced a moderate form of Islam.
"We are now required to wear veils. I was in the market when a bunch of Islamists started pulling on my sleeves to show me that I should cover my arms," said Madina Dicko, a 25-year-old restaurant worker. "I pretended like I didn't understand them, and I continued with my shopping. But they wouldn't stop, so — since I didn't have any clothes with which to cover myself — I was forced to quickly buy a veil."
"Since then, I haven't stopped wearing this veil, despite the heat. I feel like a prisoner," she said as temperatures rose above 109 degrees.
I was assigned a minder by Ansar Dine. While I was at the hospital interviewing a nurse, he told her to cover her head. The 40-year-old woman pretended not to hear him.
He again told her to cover herself. Again she pretended not to hear, until he addressed her a third time. She went and found a veil and wore it in the suffocating heat.
"I'm tired of wearing this scarf. I'm not used to this, and it's giving me a headache because it's so hot," the nurse told me in a local language she thought the Islamist minder wouldn't understand.
Even more worrying, fighters from al-Qaida's North African branch, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, have moved in too. The group forged a foothold in Mali's remote north in recent years, kidnapping dozens of Westerners for ransom. The kidnap risk has destroyed the tourism industry here, with Western embassies declaring the northern half of Mali a no-go zone.
I was told by Ansar Dine that the al-Qaida fighters are in Timbuktu as members of Ansar Dine. The fact remains, however, that people responsible for dozens of kidnappings and attacks on Western and government targets across the Sahara region of Africa are now in my home town.
After five days, the convoy I came with left Timbuktu. As we rolled out of town, around 50 young people jumped on the back of the trucks, taking advantage of the free ride south.
Another group leaving the place they grew up in, I thought with a heavy heart. Another group deciding they will be better off somewhere else.