Nouakchott — Displaced Malian women narrate their harrowing stories of escape as their normal way of life was upended and liberties crushed by armed Islamists.
Scores of Malians have found havens in neighbouring Mauritania to escape the months-long conflict. But while the first batch of refugees fled the effects of the civil war, the more recent exiles had a different motive.
"The population of northern Mali did not want to leave their homes at all. The harsh practices of Ansar al-Din and al-Qaeda forced them to flee," Touareg activist Boubakar Ansaru says.
"The ones who are most vulnerable to such abuses are women," Abdul Rahman Ag Atay, who works for the Touareg youth co-ordination committee of the M'Berra refugee camp near the southeastern town of Bassiknou.
The abuses include daily floggings, assaults and the imposition of the Islamic dress code, he explained.
"While men are either on the front lines or have fled already on foot, women due to their circumstances remain in the cities and particularly in Timbuktu," Ag Atay added.
When al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb affiliates dislodged the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) from Timbuktu, the northern Malian city changed beyond recognition, Mariama Walet Mohamed tells Magharebia.
"I was born there and lived all my life freely. I used to wear everything I wanted and I moved freely whenever I wanted," the 28-year-old refugee says. "But the control of the city by militant groups has changed my life completely. I began to realise that all that I have learned about tolerant Islam and the way I used to live was considered wrong by the new masters of the city."
"Since then, whenever I tried to go out dressed as I used to dress, I was assaulted and beaten because a part of my body was exposed," she adds. "We tried in the beginning as girls to challenge those strict instructions of the jihadists. We were of course beaten with sticks and thrown in prison."
When the brutalisation became too much to handle, Walet Mohamed made a deal with a public transport driver to travel with him at night.
"The rest of my family took all our livestock outside of the city under the pretense of taking them to graze. I joined my whole family 24 hours later in the M'Berra camp," she says. "I thank God for arriving safely and escaping the living prison imposed on us by the Islamist jihadists."
For refugee Fadimetou Walet Bibi, 50, the worst part of the ordeal is that the violence she had endured was perpetrated in the name of Islam.
"I witnessed the war of the nineties against the Malian army which killed many people. The treatment I suffered at the hands of these militants was worse, because torture and the restriction of freedoms may be more severe than murder," she says. "I reached the refugee camp during the recent clashes between the MNLA and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa along with my four daughters."
"I was beaten up with my daughters several times by jihadists in Timbuktu while going out to buy goods from the market," she adds. "The reason was always our dress, considered to be un-Islamic. One of my daughters still suffers from severe back and thigh pain because of the beatings she received at the hands of young supporters of Ansar al-Din."
Walet Bibi adds, "The strange thing is that these young people who do not have any experience in life are being given full authority to rule the population and apply Sharia."