From the Independent
The Islamist radicals who seized a vast arc of territory in northern Mali in the spring are intensifying their brutality against the population, according to victims, human rights groups, and U.N. and Malian officials. The attacks are being perpetrated as the United States, European countries and regional powers are readying an African force to retake northern Mali, after months of hesitation.
That has raised fears that the extremists could consolidate their grip over the Texas-size territory in the north and further terrorize civilians, particularly women and children.
"The people are losing all hope," said Sadou Diallo, a former mayor of the northern city of Gao. "For the past eight months, they have lived without any government, without any actions taken against the Islamists. Now the Islamists feel they can do anything to the people."
Refugees fleeing the north are now bringing stories that are darker than those recounted in interviews from this summer. Although their experiences cannot be independently verified — because the Islamists have threatened to kill or kidnap Westerners who visit — U.N. officials and human rights activists say that they have heard similar reports of horrific abuses and that some may amount to war crimes.
Radical Islamists have transformed vast stretches of desert in the north into an enclave for al-Qaida militants and other jihadists. They have imposed a hard-edged brand of sharia law, echoing Afghanistan's Taliban movement, in this West African country where moderate Islam has thrived for centuries. People are deprived of basic freedoms, historic tombs have been destroyed, and any cultural practices deemed un-Islamic are banned.
In August, they began establishing courts, jails and police forces in major towns, according to human rights activists. The police scour neighborhoods for anyone who disobeys their decrees. "It's much more organized now," said Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher on Mali for Human Rights Watch, referring to the network of courts and police. "The Islamists have taken away the joie de vivre of the people."
On Oct. 9, Mariam Conate, 15, was walking to her uncle's house in Timbuktu. She had forgotten to fully cover her face. Two Islamist police officers confronted her, and "one held me, the other beat me with the barrel of his gun," Conate recalled. "They took me to their headquarters and threw me into a room. They locked the door and left."
Outside, her jailors discussed her future. One wanted to cut off her ears as punishment. The other wanted to send her to a prison where six of her friends had been raped, Conate said. She was also worried that she would be forced to marry a militant, a fate her cousin had recently suffered.
Conate was eventually set free after a cousin who knew one of the Islamists intervened. On Oct. 12, she fled to Segou, where she stays with an aunt in a small, crowded house.
In the town of Kidal, the Islamists are making lists of unmarried pregnant women to punish them and their partners, said U.N. and Malian human rights officials and local community leaders. "They are going around asking every pregnant woman who made her pregnant," said Alkaya Toure, an official with Cri de Coeur, a Malian human rights group. "They also rely on spies inside the populations in Gao, Timbuktu and elsewhere."
But as a reward for loyalty, the Islamists have found a religious loophole. They have encouraged their fighters to marry women and girls, some as young as 10, and often at gunpoint. After sex, they initiate a quick divorce. In a case that has shocked the country, a girl in Timbuktu was forced last month to "marry" six fighters in one night, according to a report in one of Mali's biggest newspapers.
In a telephone interview, a senior Islamist commander conceded that his fighters were marrying young girls.
"Our religion says that if a girl is 12, she must get married to avoid losing her virginity in a wrong way," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three radical groups ruling the north. The other two are al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist network's North and West Africa affiliate; and Ansar Dine, or "defenders of the faith."
Boys, too, are being abused. With a possible war looming, some as young as 10 have been taken to training camps, where they learn to use weapons and plant homemade bombs, U.N. officials and human rights activists say. And as the economy worsens in rebel areas, some parents have "sold" their children to buy food and to curry favor with the Islamists.
"They give $10 to impoverished parents to recruit their children in the name of defending Islam," said Gaoussou Traore, the secretary general of Comade, a Malian children's rights group. "The Islamists tell parents that their children will go to paradise, that they will benefit in the next world. The situation of children in Mali is normally very bad . . . With the arrival of the Islamists, it's become a lot worse."
In a few parts of the north, the Islamists have been more lenient with the locals because they are from the same tribes. But Timbuktu is controlled by hard-liners from all three groups, particularly AQIM, which is largely made up of foreigners. There, the sharia codes have been fiercely enforced.
Juddu Bojuama, 26, was thrown in jail, accused by the Islamist police of drinking a beer. His denials went unheard. "They beat me 100 times with a tree branch," he said, pointing at his back and legs.
Dedeou, the laborer, suffered even more. He recalled having no attorney when he stood before an Islamic judge on charges of stealing a mattress. Afterward, he said, police tied his arms and legs and took away his cellphone. They took him to a clearing near the Niger River, where a man gave him two injections that put him to sleep.
Dedeou woke up in a hospital. His right hand had been amputated.
An Islamist fighter, standing guard at his bedside, uttered a judgment that Dedeou said he could never forget:
"This is the punishment God has decided for you."