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.
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 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 el-Hadj, a 27-year-old ex-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 rest of the evening. In the morning, "everything was swollen."
"It was scary," 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, he said.
Living under rows of dirty blue-and-white U.N. tents or under makeshift sheet-and-stick shelters, refugees spoke of heavily armed men of numerous races, nationalities and languages now controlling the streets. One spoke of encountering Afghans, Pakistanis and Nigerians.
U.S. 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 establish a haven in northern Mali to serve as a base of operations, a U.S. official told the New York Times, asking not to be identified while discussing sensitive intelligence matters. He said northern Mali then could become a destination for foreign fighters from the wider region and even further afield, but it isn't there yet.