This year’s Independence Day festivities were cut short by a series of bloody attacks in the Kayes region of western Mali. The attackers, who consider themselves “nobles” due to their descendance from slaveholding families, brutally assaulted those who descend from so-called enslaved people while they celebrated in the town of Bafoulabé in late September.
The violence lasted two days, taking one man’s life and leaving at least 12 other people injured. Far from an isolated event, this attack was the eighth of its kind recorded this year in Kayes, according to UN human rights experts.
How slavery persists in Mali today
While slavery was officially outlawed in Mali in 1905, a social caste system persists, trapping the descendants of enslaved people in a cycle of generational poverty, exclusion, and in some cases, forced labor.
Al Jazeera reports:
“Even at a time of relative peace, the lives of enslaved people are highly controlled in feudal communities. They are not allowed to become the mayor or chief of a village, own land or even marry outside their class. During celebrations such as weddings or births, they are expected to serve the nobles by slaughtering animals and preparing their meals. According to the descendants of privileged slaveholder families, this traditional practice is entirely voluntary. But the descendants of slaves say otherwise. Experts say they are at risk of losing their homes and access to water and land should they protest against the practice.”
Calls for justice met with violence and forced displacement
A rise in anti-slavery activism in the area is being met with intensifying violence and persecution. The first half of 2021 saw twice as many people injured in attacks related to descent-based slavery as in 2020, according to the UN. The situation has driven over 3,000 people from their homes in the last three years alone.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Malian sociologist Brema Ely Dicko explained: “Anti-slavery campaigns […] have raised awareness among the descendants of slaves who dared to tell their masters that they are not slaves. And masters started to take their land away from them and denied access to their water wells, which quickly followed by violence and forced displacement.”
Activists demand decisive action
The Malian government has received criticism for its feeble response to the crisis. While neighboring countries, including Mauritania, Niger and Senegal, have introduced legislation focused on eradicating descent-based slavery, Mali is yet to criminalize the practice. Activist groups, such as Temedt, the first anti-slavery group in Mali, are calling for the state to make reparations for the descendants of enslaved people and to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes.