ML181216002SDBAMAKO, Mali – Hamey Coulibaly’s neighbors threatened to kill him when he publicly renounced his slave status, forcing the father of seven to flee his home in Troukoumbe, a village of the southwestern part of Mali in September. He now lives in hiding in the West African country’s capital.

“How long this suffering will continue?” he said. “I’m worried about the future, about my relatives living in humiliation in my village because I decided to stand against slavery. Only god can help us.”

Coulibaly is one of the 800,000 slaves in Mali who mostly live in the country’s southwestern and northern regions. He’s a member of the Bambara minority, one of the groups that often live in servitude in the southwest under ethnic Soninke masters. In the north, Touareg tend to own members of the minority Bella community.

Living under an institution that dates to before the 11th Century, Malian slaves can’t run for elected office, marry non-slaves and must labor as domestics. “You don’t have the right to be an imam and lead prayers in the mosques, even if you are the most educated in Islamic culture,” said Hamey, who also left his two wives behind at home.

Slavery is hereditary in Mali. It’s persistence and the ongoing violence against those caught seeking to escape servitude reflects the deep-seated roots of the practice, said Idrissa. But, as the US and Europe show, cultural practices like slavery can change, he added. Technically, slavery is banned in Mali. Lawmakers have been considering criminalizing it for almost three years.

“What’s happening now to slave descendants in Soninke communities must outrage every Malian,” said Idissa Aklinine, an analyst for the Bamako-based Coalition of Civil Society, a human right defense group. “President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta needs to hear from those who denounce slavery. Then he can order his services to investigate the allegations of antislavery movements.”

Last November, hope rose amidst Malian slaves when United States suspended aid to Mauritania under the African Growth Opportunity Act, citing that country’s lack of progress in combating slavery. “We need strong actions, like what did the Trump administration in Mauritania,” said Idrissa. “World leaders must join with America.”

Officials defended the government’s caution, saying officials were focusing on a fighting against Islamist insurgents and armed groups of Touareg separatists.

“People must understand that the government and the ministry of Justice are aware of the necessity to pass a law criminalizing slavery,” said Boubacar Traoré, a staff member of the Malian ministry of Justice. “The delay, in my view point, may be due to the country’s insecurity and its political instability which are challenging authorities for several years.”

Hamey’s troubles started last summer when he joined the local chapter of Gambana, a European antislavery movement that operates in Mali, Gambia, Mauritania and other West African countries. On September, he travelled around with Gambana activists, declaring they had sloughed off the yoke of slavery while drawing attention to the harsh life they endured.

When he returned home, his neighbors – both masters and slaves who supported bondage – were angry.

Men destroyed Hamey’s home and held his 80-year-old mother hostage for a day while forcing his brother to pull goat skins, a menial job in Mali that is reserved for slaves. The family’s peanut farm failed due to the attack, further impoverishing them.

“I can’t understand why we are going through all these abuses,” he said. “It seems we are not citizens of the same country.”

Abdoulaye Mako, the vice-president of Temedt, an antislavery association based in northern Mali, where separatists have been fighting for independence from the central government for seven years, said the situation is tense now. Violence had become common in 66 villages in the southwest in the region.

Abdoulaye’s association decided to sue the ringleaders of mobs who had organized violence against Hamey and his family and the 66 other villages in the region where anti-slavery campaigners have been more active recently. He and other Temedt activists went to the village and read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the public square. Their demonstration sparked a riot as locals attacked them with machetes and clubs.

“They didn’t want to hear that people are born equal,” said Mako. “Suddenly there were murmurs and some started to bitten slave descendants around them. There was blood everywhere.”

The lawsuit helped lead to arrest a man in Bamako who posted a video on the Internet calling to kill antislavery campaigners. But none of the Troukoumbe villagers have been arrested.

Coulibaly recently heard that a crowd lynched his Gambana colleague Lassa Coulibaly in Kerwane, a southwestern village. Save supporters tied Lassa up and dragged him on the ground. He survived but suffered serious injuries.

Coulibaly feared what would happen if his masters found him in Bamako.

“If they know that I’m living in this place, they will kill me,” he said.

Photo: December 14, 2018 - Bamako, Mali - Slave descendant Abdoulaye Mako, the vice-president of Temedt, an antislavery association, stands near a vehicle which burnt days after the crackdown of an antislavery conference on September 23 in the village of Trougoumbe, South-West of Mali. Slavery supporters had sprinkled the vehicle with gasoline.
Credit: Soumaila Diarra/ARA Network Inc (12/14/18)

Story/photo publish date: 01/13/19

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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