MBERA, Mauritania — The vast desert expanse of northern Mali has become a magnet for Islamic extremists who have tightened their grip on Timbuktu and other far-flung towns, imposing a strict form of justice that is prompting tens of thousands of people to flee what some are likening to an African Afghanistan.
Rattled recent arrivals at a 92,000-person makeshift camp here at Mauritania’s remote eastern edge describe an influx of jihadists — some homegrown and others possibly from afar — intent on imposing an Islam of lash and gun on Malian Muslims who have long coexisted with Western tourists in the fabled town of Timbuktu.
The conditions here in Mbera are grim, with many of the Malians sick, hungry and bewildered. But that is better, refugees said in interviews Tuesday, than the grueling life turned upside-down that an unexpected Islamist military triumph inflicted on their lives in a vast region in the heart of West Africa.
Refugees from such places as Timbuktu, Goundam, Gao and Kidal described witnessing repeated whippings, beatings and other punishments in the streets, ostensibly for having violated strict Islamic law, and some of those who fled said they had been subjected to this harsh justice themselves.
“They said: ‘You are thieves. Why are you out walking at this hour?’ ” Mohamed ag el-Hadj, a 27-year-old former soldier in the Malian Army recalled. He and a friend out for a stroll at 7 in the evening found themselves surrounded by two carloads of well-armed men. The men tied the friends’ arms behind their backs, bound them to a tree and forced them to kneel, bending forward, for the evening. In the morning, “everything was swollen.”
“It was scary,” Mr. Hadj recalled. “They insulted me, called me a savage, an unbeliever.”
When they found a cigarette pack in his shirt pocket, they beat him about the face. “For nothing,” the young man said. “These are their punishments.”
Living under rows of dirty blue-and-white United Nations tents or under makeshift sheet-and-stick shelters, refugees spoke of heavily armed men of numerous races, nationalities, and languages — “black, brown, yellow, white,” one said — now controlling the streets. One spoke of encountering Afghans, Pakistanis and Nigerians.
American counterterrorism experts express concerns that Mali could turn into a magnet for international terrorists, but they say that such reports have not yet been corroborated. The turmoil in northern Mali has likely drawn extremists from the region, though, experts say.
“The concern is that these local groups will further establish a safe haven in northern Mali to serve as a base of operations,” said a United States official who asked not to be identified while discussing sensitive intelligence matters. “Then maybe northern Mali could become a destination for foreign fighters from the wider region and even further afield, but it isn’t there yet.”
The Islamists in Timbuktu have destroyed at least a half-dozen venerable above-ground tombs of holy men revered in the ancient city, proclaiming them contrary to Shariah, a legal code based on Islam. The destruction provoked outrage among the citizens and in international organizations. “The day they destroyed the mausoleums, they put sentinels everywhere,” said Hassan ag Sidi, a refugee.
Ali ag Diaba, a traveling musician who fled northern Mali last weekend, said he witnessed citizens being whipped and undressed in the streets of Goundam by the Islamists, who are taken aback by the Malians’ Sufi sect. Many Malians follow a line of belief that posits a more mystical, personal relation with the deity. “They persecute and torture people, under the guise of a false religion,” he said.
Speaking in the shade of a tent, he explained that “When they beat people and others approach” to protest, the Islamists “fire in the air to disperse them.”Video: Rock Center: The price of gold in Mali (on this page)
The extremist ministate in northern Mali is the unexpected fallout from the collapse of what had been regarded in the West — mistakenly — as a stable African democracy with functioning institutions in the capital, Bamako. In late March, army officers angry over the government’s handling of a rebellion by nomadic Tuareg rebels in the north rose up in a coup d’état, installing a military junta under an American-trained officer after two decades of elected governments.
The military junta has since ostensibly stepped down in favor of an appointed civilian government. But it continues to wield undue influence in the eyes of outside governments, and beatings and arrests — particularly of critical journalists — occur regularly in Bamako, while the Malian Army from which the junta arose is in disarray, unable to respond to the loss of half of the country’s territory.
The Tuareg rebels, largely armed by the remnants of deposed Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s arsenal, have since been pushed out by their onetime allies, the Islamists, proving no match for the firepower and determination of the jihadist fighters who now reign uncontested over northern Mali. Some of those Islamists are homegrown members of Ansar Dine, a group that has been supported by Al Qaeda, experts say. Others are believed to be part of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an affiliate known by the initials A.Q.I.M. that has a presence throughout the Sahel.
“A.Q.I.M. is composed of people from all over the world,” said a Tuareg leader in the refugee camp here, Mohamed Toutta. “We can’t fight the whole world.”
His son Mohamed, a soldier in the Tuareg M.N.L.A. army, said the Islamists were fewer in number, but better armed.
Sidati ag Mohamed, who once worked in Timbuktu’s tourism industry, said: “We don’t know these people who have come. There are a lot of Arabs and blacks from somewhere else. It’s like the United Nations. The M.N.L.A. can’t defend us.”
'We're like prisoners'
The African Union, through the regional Ecowas group, has discussed sending a military force to reunify Mali. Ramtane Lamamra, the African Union’s peace and security commissioner, told reporters this week that negotiations with terrorists had been ruled out but that officials remained open to outreach with other armed factions. “We do encourage Ansar Dine to distance itself from Al Qaeda and come to the table as a Malian national group,” he said, according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, the women of northern Mali are particular targets. Aishatta Abdou, a 30-year-old mother of six who left a week ago, was chased off the street at gunpoint in Timbuktu for walking without her husband. She described them as “well armed.”
“It was after that that we decided to leave,” she said. “When I understood that I could not go out anymore, I said, ‘Life is not possible for me here.’ ” Her friend, Fadimata Ouallet, seated near her under a tent, was forced out of a car by gunmen because she was the only woman in it, even though the men were relatives. They pointed a gun at her and said, “Get out or we will kill you,” she said. “I trembled all night, with the fear,” she said. “I can still see them.”
A young couple, whipped in the street in Timbuktu for walking unmarried, “were in tears,” recalled Hassan ag Sidi, a merchant who arrived in the camp in recent days. “But the Islamists didn’t stop,” he said. “In the end, they had to be taken to the clinic.”
For now, what refugees are describing as an Islamist reign of terror runs unchecked. Western and African governments cannot make up their minds on whether to intervene, despite repeatedly denouncing the situation in the north. The Malian government and the Tuareg rebels are similarly frozen in place. “They have completely turned our way of life upside-down,” Mr. Sidi said. “They have imposed a kind of religion on us we have never seen. You can’t even walk with your wife. We’re like prisoners.”
He and others said that even the spartan conditions at the camp are preferable. “The people who are still there, they are practically dead,” said Mohammed el-Mehdi, a former tour guide in Timbuktu who arrived across the border from Mali on Tuesday.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
This story, "Jihadists' Fierce Justice Drives Thousands to Flee Mali," originally appeared in The New York Times.
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