Refugees who have managed to flee northern Mali are receiving food aid which has been arriving in the capital Bamako.
The situation in the north is too dangerous for non-governmental organisations to operate.
The UN believes armed Islamist groups have been preventing thousands from fleeing areas affected by their recent offensive. It has warned of a humanitarian crisis.
“There are large numbers of displaced people, and our major concern is that children are separated from their families, which can make them much more vulnerable to many forms of abuse, including recruitment and sexual violence,” said UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado.
The militants are said to have extended their reach despite days of French airstrikes. In the face of the ground operation they are now reportedly splitting into small groups and melting into local populations.
Many refugees have made it to the capital since last year. One woman said she came from Gao, adding that the rebels beat and raped them.
The punishments dished out to those who offend them have been widely publicised. Video footage shows some being whipped.
Others have suffered a worse fate. Souleymane Traore used to work as a lorry driver in the north. Accused of being a spy, Islamist militia cut off his hand. The process took half an hour.
“I screamed as loud as I could. I cried and called for God. They didn’t look at me. They just filmed with their mobile phones, while they cut off my hand. When I couldn’t cry and scream any longer, they showed me the severed hand. I was kind of unconscious with my eyes open. They asked about my name and then they dripped cold water on me. And then they took me to the hospital.”
Now an invalid, Souleymane scrapes a living on the streets of Bamako.
The amount earned from all the petrol he managed to sell on the day he was filmed came to less than two euros.
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