Mali’s refugees on life under Islamists: executions, amputations and child soldiers

January 18, 2013

A  frame from a mobile phone video shows a rebel convoy moving through Mali. (AFP PHOTO / STRINGERSTRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

It's never easy for outsiders to learn what happens in a remote country occupied by hostile militants. But the more time passes in Mali under the Islamist rebels' months-old rule, the worse it appears for those who live there. Stories out of the towns under Islamist control have included, as The Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan reported, forcibly "marrying" some women and beating others for daring to interact with men.

As the conflict worsens in Mali, with France leading an armed intervention to turn back the rebels, thousands of refugees are fleeing. The United Nations refugee agency says 144,500 Malian refugees have moved into neighboring countries, with 407,000 more expected to join them. Many of them are ending up in camps in neighboring Mauritania, and they're telling their stories.

The Associated Press spoke to Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency who relayed some of what the refugees have said about life under the Islamists. "The refugees said they fled the recent military intervention, the lack of any means of subsistence and fear of the strict application of sharia law," she told the A.P.

The nature of that interpretation of sharia law seems to have included some shockingly severe punishments. The refugees "reported having witnessed executions and amputations, and mentioned that large amounts of money are being offered to civilians to fight against the Malian army and its supporters," Fleming said. It's not clear where that money would come from. "According to the accounts from refugees there are children among the rebel fighters."

Fleming's few details would be difficult to verify, particularly given the vast size of northern Mali, and the fact that its towns have been seized by a handful of distinct groups. But the stories are chilling. Fleming said of the refugee accounts, "People spoke of family members having disappeared."

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Olga Khazan | January 18, 2013