BAMAKO, Mali (CNN) -- There's no shortage of harrowing stories of life under Islamist militants in northern Mali.
Public floggings for smoking a cigarette.
Brutal beatings for working as a radio journalist.
Broken limbs. Broken hearts.
"For the Islamists, a human being is like an ant you squash, like an animal you slaughter," said Sedou Sangare, a resident of the northern town of Gao.
Gao was once a vibrant community filled with colorful camel caravans lazily strolling down the streets. Bearded men and beaded women mingled freely.
Then the Islamists rode in on rundown pickup trucks, armed to the teeth.
They banned smoking, television, sports and music -- a major setback for the northern region known for its "Festival au Desert."
They forbade unwed men and women from mixing in public.
An offensive led by France is aiming to stop the militants from expanding their reach to the capital of Mali.
But the north remains under the Islamists' iron grip.
Though Gao has a majority Muslim population, most residents practice a more relaxed form of the religion.
After militants started imposing a stricter form of Islamic law, or Sharia, throngs took to the streets in protest.
"When they declared Sharia, everybody panicked," Sangare said. "Christians, Muslims, everybody fled."
But the protests did not deter the militants, who publicly punished anyone who defied their teachings.
In August last year, they forced a couple allegedly having an affair into two holes and stoned them to death as terrified residents quietly watched.
Lists of public and cruel punishments grew.
Floggings, executions, amputations -- all in full view of aghast residents.
The Islamists compiled a list of unmarried mothers, saying Sharia law condemns relationships outside marriage.
A mayor -- and his people -- displaced
Mayor Sadou Diallo misses residents of his desert town of Gao, most of whom fled to Bamako when militants took over.
About 229,000 Malians have been displaced -- mainly from Kidal, Timbuktu, and Gao, according to the United Nations.
He is one of the displaced. A former respected community leader, trying to rebuild, just like his people.
Residents of the north, once proud of the vibrant desert communities near River Niger, say the region is a shadow of what it used to be.
"Home is not sweet anymore," said Fadimata Alainchar, a charity worker and native of nearby Timbuktu.
A recent visit to her hometown left her shaken.
"When entering the city, the signboard which was: "Welcome to Timbuktu the City of 333 Saints" is now "Welcome to Timbuktu, the gate to the application of the Shariya," she said in a submission to CNN's iReport.
The fabled city includes ancient tombs and wooden structures dating to the 15th century, a major part of its cultural heritage.
And those are not the only changes.
Women who don't cover their bodies in accordance to the militants' Sharia law, are imprisoned or raped, she said. Their husbands, terrified of killings and amputations, don't utter a word.
And gunshots are a common sound.
"If not to disperse women marching, it is to kill dogs that are barking and preventing the insurgents from sleeping," Alainchar said. "Home has changed. Before it was peace, joy and love. Now it is shame, terror and abuse."
"I prefer dying"
Stories of cruel punishments abound.
Radio journalist Malik Maiga faced the militants' wrath when he used his show to warn residents of public stoning or floggings.
Islamists singled him out, beat him up and left him in a cemetery. He survived and is among the displaced in Bamako.
Maiga is not the only journalist targeted. Last week, another radio journalist was killed, leading Gao residents to retaliate by killing a militant leader.
Then there's Suleyman and Muktar, former truck drivers, accused of stealing. Their limbs were hacked off. They are jobless and wander around the capital.
"I prefer dying to being like this," Muktar said. "My hand hurts, my heart aches. I only have God to ask for help."
Mali descended into chaos last year, when junior military members seized power in a coup. Outraged soldiers accused the government of not providing adequate equipment to battle ethnic Tuareg rebels roaming the vast desert in the north.
Tuareg rebels took advantage of the power vacuum after the coup and seized some parts of the north. A power struggle erupted between the rebels and local Islamists, leading the latter to topple the tribe and seize control of two-thirds of northern Mali, an area the size of France.
Hope amid chaos
The crisis in the north has prompted fears that the al Qaeda-linked extremists will set up shop there.
It is "a serious, ongoing threat," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Wednesday.
The French offensive to help the government in its former colony aims to stop the militants from using the vast desert area as a training ground for international attacks.
"We are in for a struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven" for terrorists, Clinton said.
International troops from West African nations such as Nigeria are joining the effort to restore some normalcy to the north.
Amid the strife and despair, citizens of the former French colony remain hopeful.
And as French combat helicopters fly overhead, crowds below erupt into cheers.
But in northern Mali, at least for now, there is little to smile about.
-- CNN's Nima Elbagir and Ingrid Formanek reported from Bamako and Faith Karimi wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Sarah Brown also contributed to this report
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