‘Slaves won’t have a party in our village’: Attack reveals Mali's brutal, ongoing caste system

·5-min read

A group of people celebrating Mali’s Independence Day were brutally attacked, bound hand and foot and publicly humiliated in the western Malian region of Kayes on September 28. The attack reveals the ongoing impacts of “descent-based slavery”, a form of discrimination that has persisted in the West African country, long after forced labour and servitude were abolished.

Videos shared online show a harrowing sequence of events: What began as merriment and dancing degraded into a bloody scene of humiliation as a group of people who consider themselves “nobles” attacked an Independence Day party held by people in the so-called “slave” class.

The attack took place on September 28 in the village of Souroubiré, in western Mali, where traditional social castes are still the norm. Slavery was banned in Mali in 1905, but the descendants of former slaves are still labelled as such, with children inheriting “slave” status from their mothers.

Those in the slave caste are regularly deprived of rights and humiliated, and during festivals are sometimes expected to slaughter animals and cook for the nobles. The ones who fight back against the slave designation are regularly the target of violent attacks. This is what happened in Souroubiré, when members of an anti-slavery association, the Association Against Domination and Slavery (ACDE), gathered to hold an Independence Day celebration.

Due to the graphic nature of these videos, we have decided only to publish screenshots.

>> Watch our report on descent-based slavery in Mali from 2019:

‘The nobles started to arrive from all sides, trying to prevent us from having our party’

Seydou (not his real name) was at the party when the nobles arrived.

We wanted to organise a party, lasting 12 hours, from the 28th of September. Many people there were from the association against slavery. We were celebrating Mali’s Independence Day [Editor’s note: September 22, but they delayed their party in order to avoid interfering with a party thrown by nobles several days prior].

There were some patrols around the celebration, and we showed them the paper from the municipality which gave us permission to hold the event. A man came to the party, asked to see the chief and told us to stop our music. We searched him and found a pistol in his pocket, which we took to the town hall.

Then the nobles started to arrive from all sides, trying to prevent us from having our party. They had sticks and machetes. They said, “Nobody move,” and “Slaves won’t have a party in our village”. We stopped our music. They started to throw stones towards the party, and injured some people. They had guns and shot into the air to scare us.

‘The people they captured had refused to be called slaves’

We all tried to run away but some people didn’t succeed. They caught some of the people and beat them and tied them up. I managed to escape and hide in a field. Some people apologised and deferred to them but others fought back. They said that the people they captured had refused to be called slaves. A lot of people were injured. They kept the ones they captured for eight hours before releasing them.

Twelve people were severely injured in the attack, and one of them died of his injuries several days later, according to ACDE.

A caste-based society

Although the noble class does not have legal ownership of the slaves, discrimination and abuse still persist. Those who bear the title of “slave” are not allowed to marry someone from another caste, can’t hold leadership positions and often live segregated from the other classes.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Mahamadi Kanouté, secretary-general of the Association Against Domination and Slavery for the region where the attack occurred.

Our association fights against the practice of descent-based slavery. But there are others who claim their status as nobles, who say that it is okay to fight at any cost to conserve traditional rules. There’s a noble class and one of slaves, everyone has their social status.

In the village of Souroubiré, the nobles and slaves coexist, so to speak. But tension has existed long before this. The slaves have been organising and creating associations since 2019, to bring attention and fight against the phenomenon of slavery by descent.

This attack has been preceded by four other similar cases – and in the first cases, no one was prosecuted. This time, we need real legal follow-up so that the guilty parties and accomplices can be judged according to the law. So that they can be punished and serve as an example so that it doesn’t happen again.

There have been twice as many people injured in slavery-related attacks in 2021 compared with 2020, according to the UN. Between January and July 2021, 62 people were injured in similar attacks.

In May 2021, a hundred people, more than half of them children, had to flee their village after refusing to be called slaves. In July, 12 people were injured after people wielding guns and machetes attacked people from the slave class to prevent them from working in their fields.

>> Read on the Observers: Video: Malian man tied up in public for opposing caste-based slavery

‘We’re worried that there will be even more violence and conflict if we rebel’

These violent attacks have prevented the slave caste and anti-slavery associations from rising up against the nobles, according to Seydou:

We have the feeling that the nobles have the support of the politicians and authorities, especially among the local prefects, or even the police. The slave class outnumbers the nobles, so we have decided to refuse to be called slaves. But we’re worried that there will be even more violence and conflict if we rebel.

Despite formal slavery being abolished in 1905, there are no current laws that ban the discriminatory practice of descent-based slavery. Anti-slavery associations such as ACDE are calling on authorities to enact a law forbidding the practice.

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