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.