Gao — People continue to be enslaved in northern Mali, according to Malian human rights organisation Temedt, despite a widespread belief that slavery no longer exists in the country.
"The government believes slavery ended with independence, when many of the people who had been living as slaves in the colonial period were freed," said Temedt President Mohammed Ag Akeratane, "but I would estimate there are still several thousand people living in slavery or slavery-like conditions in modern Mali."
According to Temedt, which means "solidarity" in the Touareg language Tamasheq, slavery continues in the north in the region of Gao 1,200km north of the capital, Bamako, and around the town of Menaka 1,500km north of Bamako.
Most of the slavery takes place between the Berber-descended Touaregs and the indigenous Bella people who live in this region, although the Peul and Songhai communities have also been known to use slaves in the past, according to Temedt.
Iddar Ag Ogazide, a Bella, said he lived as a slave in Ansongo, 80km south of Gao, where he worked for the Touareg Ag Baye family for 35 years without receiving a salary or an education. The Ag Bayes bought his great-grandmother and inherited his family members from one generation to the next. In March 2008 Iddar finally could not take any more and hatched a successful escape plan - he is currently living in Gao.
His wife Takwalet, who escaped with him, told IRIN: "Life was hard there. Everything I did was against my will. I did all the cooking, pounding [of millet], getting water, fetching the wood and sweeping the house. I never received money; I didn't even get any clothes."
But discussions on slavery are complex in Mali, with many people arguing it does not exist. Some Gao residents said individuals might stay with their "masters" more out of economic necessity than anything.
Today the Bella have become largely assimilated into Touareg culture, keeping similar cultural traditions and speaking the same language (Tamasheq), and many of the Bella are known as Black Tamasheq. The Touareg masters and the Bella people have lived in a complex caste system for many decades and some say little has changed in this power relationship - much of the northern region's property and livestock remains in the Touareg hands.
The towns of Menaka and Ansongo are harsh and isolated, with few jobs and economic opportunities. "Conditions are tough in the north, but the Bella people are free to leave their masters if they wish," said an unnamed source in the Malian government's Territorial Administration department. "There is not an obligation, or formalised slavery," he said.
The implication is that some Bella people may feel unable to strike out on their own and leave the protection of their rich master, who feeds them but does not pay them. "If people came out to declare openly that they were slaves, then of course the state would do something," said the source.
But for Anti-Slavery International the situation is more clear-cut.
"Like his parents before him, Iddar was born a slave, a status ascribed to him at birth, and [he] grew up under the total control of a master who exacted labour from him for no remuneration", said Romana Cacchioli, Africa programme coordinator with Anti-Slavery International. "In my view Iddar's case is a clear case of slavery."
Murky legal framework
It is not clear what the state could do in cases such as Iddar's, as Mali has no law formally forbidding slavery. Although Mali's constitution states all people are equal, and the country has signed up to the major international conventions banning slavery, including the UN International Declaration on Human Rights, officially the practice was never criminalised in Mali, which makes it difficult to seek legal redress in cases such as Iddar Ag Ogazide's.
Nevertheless, Temedt has instructed a lawyer to work with Iddar and another escaped female slave in Gao. "We would like to see if they can take a case to court for compensation," said Temedt's Akeratane. At the time of writing Temedt was also exploring the possibility of bringing forward a case for child abduction for his son, Ahmed.
"The difficulty of constructing a case for Iddar demonstrates the need for a law criminalising slavery in Mali," said Romana Cacchioli from Anti-Slavery International, a London-based human rights organisation which is supporting Temedt's efforts.
But according to Akeratane, when interviewed in April in Malian paper Nouvelle Republique, there are currently many cases awaiting judgement and going nowhere fast, which sets an unpromising precedent for future ex-slaves who wish to pursue justice.
One of Temedt's principal goals is to instil a sense of pride in ex-slaves for their ethnic and cultural identity, which Akeratane hopes will help them to demand equal rights. The organisation runs human rights awareness sessions for groups vulnerable to slavery to make them aware they do not have to accept the tradition.
Support for the organisation is growing. Temedt has been in operation for just over two years and now has 18,000 members across eight regions of the country. It has also started to work with anti-slavery groups across the borders in Niger and Mauritania. Akeratane believes this is the first time the sensitive issue of continuing slavery is being tackled head -on in the country.
He is confident that attitudes will shift and slavery will one day be eradicated in Mali. Gamer Dicko, a Bamako-based journalist who comes from a black Tamasheq family, agrees: "Things are changing today, but very slowly. There are some black Tamasheq who say OK, our fathers were slaves but we are not. They are proud of their dress and speaking their own language."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]