On a sweltering afternoon, Islamist police officers dragged Fatima al-Hassan out of her house in the fabled city of Timbuktu.
They beat her up, shoved her into a white pickup truck and drove her to their headquarters. She was locked up in a jail as she awaited her sentence: 100 lashes with an electrical cord.
"Why are you doing this?" she recalled asking.
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 southern Mali is adding to the uncertainty. 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.
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 religious 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 unmarried couples 100 times each in Timbuktu, 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 displaced northerners, 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.
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. Children are denied education. The sick and elderly die because many doctors and nurses have fled, and most clinics and hospitals have been destroyed or looted.
In March, the militants joined forces with secular Tuareg separatists, fueled by weapons from the arsenal of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, to seize control of the north in the wake of a military coup that crippled the government. The extremists then pushed out the Tuareg rebels and solidified their control.
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.
"As I listened, I was trembling and crying," Conate said.
U.N. and Malian officials said they have learned of many cases of rape and forced weddings by Islamist gunmen in the north. Two weeks ago, U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson told U.N. members that sexual violence is prevalent in the region.
Publicly, though, the Islamists have claimed moral righteousness, banning sex before marriage. In August, they stoned a couple to death after accusing them of adultery. Now the Islamists are systematically asking men and women who walk together whether they are married. 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.
"They are abusing religion to force women and girls to have intercourse," said Ibrahima Berte, an official at Mali's National Commission for Human Rights. "This kind of forced marriage is really just sexual abuse."
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."
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.
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."
Pro-government self-defense militias in the south, made up of civilians seeking to liberate the north, also have recruited children, activists say.
"The situation of children in Mali is normally very bad," Traore said. "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.
By some estimates, more than half the population of 60,000 has fled; a majority of the refugees in Segou and the capital, Bamako, are from Timbuktu, said Western refugee officials and community leaders.
But the price of escape has been steep. Maman Dedeou, a 22-year-old laborer, has no job in Bamako, where he lives with relatives who are also refugees. Like them, all he possesses are bitter memories.
"I just eat and sleep," he said, raising his injured right arm, wrapped in a thick white bandage, as an explanation.
The extremists have not stopped at destroying ancient mausoleums and shrines in Timbuktu, which was an important center of Islamic learning 500 years ago. They have also targeted shop owners such as Moktar Ben Sidi, 50, who sold traditional masks and other items to Western tourists. One day, a group of Islamist fighters broke down his door and smashed everything, he said.
"They said such artifacts were forbidden under Islam," Sidi said. "They didn't come to help us. They came to destroy us."
Inside his barbershop, Ali Maiga, 33, had a mural of hairstyles favored by American and French rappers on the wall. The Islamists sprayed white paint over it, he recalled, and warned him that he risks being whipped if he shaves off anyone's beard.
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."