Islamists tighten their brutal hold on northern Mali

Al-Qa'ida-linked militants step up their campaign of atrocities, raping women and young girls and recruiting boy soldiers

SEGOU, MALI

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. Her crime? 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 UN 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 UN Security Council, is unlikely to begin until next summer, and refugees fleeing the north are bringing with them dark stories. They 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 police. Two weeks ago, the Islamists publicly whipped three unmarried couples 100 times each in Timbuktu, human rights activists said.

The Islamist police had spotted Ms Hassan giving water to a male visitor at her house last month. Her 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 to Segou, a town in southern Mali that has taken in thousands of displaced northerners, mostly women and children. It was fortunate, she 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-Qa'ida militants and other jihadists. 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.

On 9 October, 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. "One held me, the other beat me with the barrel of his gun," she 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. The other wanted to send her to a prison where six of her friends had been raped.

Publicly, 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. To reward their troops' loyalty, the Islamists have found a religious loophole. They have encouraged fighters to marry women or 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.

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, UN officials and human rights activists say. And as the economy worsens in rebel areas, some parents have "sold" their children to buy food or curry favour with the Islamists.

The extremists have not stopped at destroying ancient mausoleums and shrines in Timbuktu, which was an important centre of Islamic learning 500 years ago. Inside his barber shop, Ali Maiga, 33, had a mural of hairstyles favoured 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.

Dedeou, a labourer, suffered even more. He recalled having no attorney when he stood before an Islamic judge on charges of stealing a mattress. Afterwards, he said, police tied his arms and legs and 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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers