ABALA, Niger — Tawaye Yatara arrived at the refugee camp here on a recent day after trudging out of northern Mali through the blistering hot desert. In her arms, she clutched her hungry child. In her heart, she carried anger at the hard-line Islamists who had driven her from her country.
“First they ordered women to cover up. Then they ordered us not to enter the market,” said Yatara, a food seller, her voice rising. “I could not make money to feed my child. This is against our traditions. This is against the Islam we know.”
Every day, several thousand people flee northern Mali to makeshift refugee camps that have sprung up in remote regions of Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Guinea, the United Nations says. The fortunate can afford to pay for transport. The unfortunate walk across a desolate tableau, seeking refuge in some of the hottest, least-developed nations in the world, already under pressure from a serious food and humanitarian crisis.
It is an exodus unlike any other experienced in West Africa, driven not just by war or famine, but by Ansar Dine, a puritanical, Al Qaeda-linked movement whose Arabic name means “defenders of faith.”
Taking advantage of a power vacuum in the capital, far to the south, the Islamists swept through northern Mali earlier this year, piggybacking on a Tuareg separatist rebellion. Today they are in firm control, imposing a strict version of Islam that includes a ban on television and compulsory beards for men, requirements that echo actions of Afghanistan’s Taliban and Somalia’s al-Shabab militia.
The militants have also destroyed ancient mosques in the northern Malian city of Timbuktu, a center of Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries, evoking comparisons to the Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan.
Less well known is the emotional trauma that Ansar Dine has inflicted on a population that has watched helplessly as its traditions have been upended, leaving no choice but flight.
That trauma can be heard in the quivering voice of Assalim Ag Ehadt, a 46-year-old cartoonist who used to sell sketches for a living. He fled the town of Menaka last month to come here to Abala, a windswept village near Niger’s border with Mali, where a patchwork of UN-erected tents accommodates more than 50,000 refugees.
Ehadt remembers watching children play soccer or enjoy videos on their cellphones. Men would smoke; women would wear light, colorful fabrics, revealing skin. They would speak to each other on the streets. But their new rulers have decreed that such mundane actions are against Islam.
Mali, the largest country in West Africa, is 90 percent Muslim. The strain of Islam practiced there is tolerant, absorbing tribal beliefs and allowing women the freedom to engage in business and politics, mingle freely with men, and choose whether to wear a veil. Even though northern Mali has seen the rise of ultra-conservative preachers and mosques in recent years, few expected fundamentalist Islam to become a controlling social force there.
Last month, Ibrahim Maiga, 50, witnessed a group of militants chasing a girl in front of his house. Her crime? Not wearing a djellaba, or full-body robe. She escaped, avoiding 10 lashes from a whip, he said. He thought of his wife and eight children, including four girls.
“There’s no work, no food. And they are restricting our freedoms,” Maiga said. “Why should we stay?”