TIMBUKTU, Mali 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 Qaeda-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.
He showered her with gifts, starting with a 6-yard-long piece of bazin fabric, the hand-dyed, polished cotton which is the mainstay of Malian fashion. It was a royal violet, and he paid to have it tailored into a two-piece outfit, with a flame-like flourish of orange brocade on the bodice.
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.
She explained how to find the mud house on Rue 141, past the water tower also made of mud, in a neighborhood less than a mile from where he sold gasoline from jerrycans by the roadside. She had time to put on a yellow dress.
He arrived on his motorcycle.
He was older -- she does not know how old -- and already married, a status that bears no taboo in a predominantly Muslim region where men can take up to four wives. She found him handsome.
From that day on, he ended phone conversations with the phrase, 'Ye bani,' or "I love you" in the Sonrai language. Instead of Salaka, he called her "cherie" -- sweetheart in French -- still spoken in this former French colony.
She put it on for him, and they went to the photo studio one street over. They stood against the poster backdrop of an enamel-blue waterfall. He put his arms around her and invited her to sit on his lap.
By the time the first group of rebel fighters carrying the flag of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad drove past her house on April 1, the two had been seeing each other for several months. He called to see if she was OK.
These fighters in military uniforms made clear their goal: They wanted to create an independent homeland known as Azawad for Mali's marginalized Tuareg people.