Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post – Mbarka Wallet Hallane, 50, a former slave, poses for a portrait in Timbuktu. Across this sand-swept city, thousands of darker-skinned modern day slaves, known as Bellas, are experiencing a sense of liberation, many for the first time in their lives.
“I am free,” said Aminaya Traore, a 50-year-old woman who was born into slavery. “I can do whatever I want.”
“Under the Islamists, blacks were exploited even more by the pink-skinned people,” said Roukiatou Cisse, a social worker with Temedt, a human rights group, referring to the Tuaregs and Arab Moors. “They told them, ‘We are with the Islamists. We are in power. We are the masters and you are our slaves. We will do what we want.’ ”
“Now, the slaves have profited by the pink-skinned people leaving.”
The jubilation underscores how deeply divided Mali’s northern communities became during the 10-month rule of the Islamists, who included homegrown jihadists, such as the Tuaregs and Arab Moors, as well as foreigners with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror network’s West and North Africa branch. A French-led military intervention that began in January ousted the Islamists from towns in the north, though a guerrilla war continues.
Under the Islamists, many Tuaregs and Arab Moors took advantage of their shared ethnic backgrounds with the jihadists and asserted themselves over their black neighbors. The widened rift between the communities could take years, if not decades, to close, residents say.
“It’s a very deep wound that could prove difficult to heal. It could fester for 10, 20, even 30 years,” said Salem Ould Elhadje, 73, a local historian, who has written four books about Timbuktu. “One side no longer trusts the other side.”
In rebellion, a resurgence
Slavery was abolished in 1960 after the West African nation gained independence, and all people are considered equal under Mali’s constitution. Yet there’s no law that criminalizes slavery, making it hard to seek legal action. And there’s little political will to address the problem: Many government officials deny the practice exists.
Today, an estimated 200,000 people live as slaves or in slavelike conditions in Mali, mostly in rural areas, according to Temedt, which means “solidarity.” The advocacy group Anti-Slavery International says that “descent-based slavery” exists in other West African countries as well, including Mauritania and Niger.
Those who have been freed, often by running away, still face discrimination because of their family’s historical status as slaves. Most of the people who have slaves are Tuareg, though some black ethnic groups in northern Mali have also been known to have slaves, who are known as Bella, which means both “black” and “slave.”