Since April of this year, Islamic fundamentalist groups have controlled a Texas-sized portion of northern Mali. Few journalists are allowed to report from the region, but the news that trickles out is grim.
The Islamists, imposing strict Sharia law, have severely disrupted the normal rhythm of life. Business is also hurting, as tourists headed for famous sites in Djenne and Timbuktu are now staying away out of fear.
The Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas, says it plans to send more than 3,000 troops to help Malian government forces oust the Islamists from the north.
Recently Paul Mben, a journalist writing for Germany's Spiegel newspaper, managed to negotiate his way into northern Mali. He tells the BBC what he witnessed in cities such as Gao and Kidal.