Hassan was being punished for giving water to a male visitor.
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.
But such an action, if approved by the U.N. Security Council, is unlikely to begin until next summer or fall, U.S. and other Western officials say, and political turmoil in the south is adding to the uncertainty. That has raised fears that the extremists could consolidate their grip over the Texas-size territory 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.
The refugees say the Islamists are raping and forcibly marrying women, and recruiting children for armed conflict. Social interaction deemed an affront to their interpretation of Islam is zealously punished through Islamic courts and a police force that has become more systematic and inflexible, human rights activists and local officials say.
Two weeks ago, the Islamists publicly whipped three couples 100 times each in Timbuktu for not being married, human rights activists said.
The Islamist police had spotted Hassan giving water to a male visitor at her house last month. Hassan’s brother knew an Islamist commander and pleaded for mercy. After spending 18 hours in jail, she was set free with a warning. The next day, she fled here to Segou, a town in southern Mali that has taken in thousands of the displaced, mostly women and children.
It was fortunate, Hassan said, that she was handing the glass to her friend out on the veranda. “If they had found me with him near the bedroom, they would have shot us both on the spot,” she said.
With organization, ‘abuse’
Radical Islamists have transformed vast stretches of desert in the north into an enclave for al-Qaeda 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.