"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.