TOYA, Mali — The insurgents who have fled from invading French troops in Mali have been taking with them some of their most important possessions — slaves.
The Tuareg tribes that overran Mali’s military with the help of Arab extremist groups aligned with al-Qaeda have long held slaves and many of the captives are from families that have been enslaved for generations.
“It’s no way to live, without your freedom,” said Mohammed Yattara, a former slave who ran away from his Tuareg masters years ago.
“You depend on them for everything. If they tell you to do something, you have to do it, or they will beat you,” he said as he sat with the chief of the village of Toya and among men and women who were descendants of slaves or former slaves.
“You can marry, but if the master wants to have sex with your wife, he will. Everything that’s yours is theirs,” Yattara said.
Tuaregs are a semi-nomadic people of North Africa’s Sahara desert whose traditional land was divided into several nations, the borders of which were drawn by European colonialist powers.
They predate the Arab tribes that moved into the region centuries ago and in Mali, a former French colony, Tuaregs lived primarily in the north part of the country.
But in March, armed Tuaregs took control of the north from the Mali government and marched south with Islamists aligned with al-Qaeda. They took over the city of Timbuktu and threatened the capital of Bamako. The Islamists imposed strict shariah, or Islamic law, on inhabitants it controlled.
Some Tuaregs took advantage of their newly won control to reclaim freed or runaway slaves, mostly black Africans.
The French military arrived in January and retook Timbuktu from the Tuaregs, who fled into the desert or refugee camps in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mauritania, some taking slaves with them. Tuaregs and Arabs who failed to escape have been summarily killed, activist groups have said.
Human Rights Watch said the Malian army and black African civilians are holding all Tuaregs and Arabs responsible for the recent months of terror and human rights abuses, whether or not they participated in the crimes.
Yattara is one of the few accessible witnesses who was willing to discuss slavery under the Tuaregs.
Like many other residents of his village, Yattara is a farmer in the rice and hay fields in the river’s surrounding wetlands.
Each of Mali’s dozens of ethnic groups has a traditional occupation, and Yattara is one of the Bella (“slave” in the Tuareg language), the black Africans who have inherited their slave status.
Though slavery was outlawed in 1960, Mali is one of the countries in the world where the practice of human servitude flourishes, with as many as 200,000 Bella living a life of hereditary enslavement.
Not all Tuaregs own slaves, and not all slave owners are Tuareg. There are also black Malian ethnic groups who own Bella slaves.
But in the Timbuktu region, only Tuaregs own slaves. Not only were the Tuareg seen as supporters for the Islamist rebels’ harsh rule over the last 10 months, but their slave-owning ways fanned racial animosity in northern Mali.
Like all other slave children, Yattara never went to school, and to this day he is unable to read and write. “But my son is in school now,” he said proudly.
Yattara said he believes he is in his early 40s but is not certain of his exact age because Tuareg masters do not file birth certificates. He fled his masters as a young man and during his travels to Senegal and Ivory Coast he discovered that slave-owning was in fact illegal.
“In my father’s generation, slaves weren’t thinking to be free,” Yattara said. “But now there are many slaves who want to be free, and they try to find a way, but they are afraid.”
In the Timbuktu region, slaves work on farms or as household servants or shepherds. Deeper in the vast desert of the north, inhabited by Tuaregs and Arabs, the slaves mine salt, a back-breaking task done under the Saharan sun.
Salt is the north’s main economic product and black slaves deliver the giant grayish slabs by boat or truck to the black Africans, who then take it to markets in the south.
Yattara and his companions agreed that Tuaregs were the worst slave-masters in Mali.
Yakuba Mohammed Touré, the white-robed village chief of Toya, said the village had always been mixed between Tuareg and other ethnic groups and before the rebels took over Timbuktu they lived and did business together in peace.
“But when the rebels came, we didn’t get along with them. They made the women cover their faces and did many things we don’t agree with,” he said.
“They destroyed everything, even the electricity which brings water to the farms, and the Tuareg worked with the rebels because they are the same ethnic group,” Touré said. “If they didn’t agree with (the rebels), they would have left.”
Yattara lives with his wife Fatimata, herself a descendant of former slaves, and their four children near the Niger River on the outskirts of Timbuktu. His feelings about the Tuareg Malians show that the fighting unleashed last year may have a way to go once the French depart.
“In my life I will never forget what it feels like to be a slave,” Yattara said. “Whenever I see Tuaregs I will be angry.”