Imams and directors of the Quranic schools in Gao say it was here that the youths were radicalized, while the existing schools continued their regular curriculum.
Students who were plucked from classrooms in Gao and the surrounding communities came to the customs building to study and prepare for war.
At the Adadatou Alislamiatou madrassa in Gao, pupils are now back in class after the disruptions caused by the fighting and a Feb. 10 attack when the militants re-invaded the city in a show of force before being forced back into the bush by French and Malian forces.
As the afternoon sun bakes the ground outside the classroom hut, 10-year-old Abdoulaye Ousmane leads his classmates in reciting Quranic verses while their teacher attends prayers at the nearby mosque.
Sporting a soccer jersey and flip-flops, Abdoulaye sings out the words as he traces the Arabic script in chalk with his pointer, and an exuberant group of nearly 50 other children loudly sing back to him loudly.
They sit cross-legged on mats on the sand floor of the thatched hut — the girls on one side all wearing headscarves with some carrying Hannah Montana backpacks, too.
As these students return to school after the MUAO occupation, their teachers say many have been traumatized by the gunfire and fighting. Religious instructors are also confronted with how best to guide their students who have been exposed to the extremist ideology of al-Qaida-linked militants.
During the reign of the MUJAO, the Islamic fighters amputated hands of suspected thieves in public squares. Billboards displayed around town ordered women to cover themselves in public.
The Islamic militants capitalized on the city’s poverty, offering sign-on bonuses and monthly salaries to those who joined their cause, imams said.
Abdourhamane Maiga, assistant director of the Adadatou Alislamiatou madrassa, recalls one student who dropped out of school after being asked to repeat a grade.
The next time Maiga saw the pupil, he was wielding a firearm with the Islamic fighters at their police headquarters downtown.
“They didn’t come here to practice Islam,” he says of the extremists. “The prophet never would have accepted a child of 10 years old waging jihad and taking up arms.”