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A group of people celebrating Mali’s Independence Day was brutally attacked on September 28 in the Kayes region in the west of the country. Fists and feet tied, residents considered “slaves” were publicly humiliated. The violence, which left one dead and several injured, underscores the persistence of the system of “slavery by descent”, despite the abolition of forced labor and servitude in the country.

Several amateur videos documented the chain of events 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 labeled as such, with children inheriting “slave” status from their mothers.

This September 28, the day had started with joy, with a party commemorating the independence of Mali organized by the descendants of slaves, a few days after the date of Malian independence, on September 22, in order to avoid ‘interfere with a party organized by “nobles” several days before. The celebration was organized by members of the Association against Domination and Slavery (ACDE), a Malian anti-slavery association. But it continued in violence, bloodshed and humiliation when a group of people considering themselves “nobles” attacked those considered “slaves”.

Due to the violence of the videos, the Observers editorial team chose to broadcast only screenshots.

Screenshot of a video taken on September 28 showing two members of the “slave” caste tied up and beaten.
Screenshot of a video taken on September 28 showing two members of the “slave” caste tied up and beaten. © Observers

Members of the “slave” caste are regularly deprived of their rights and humiliated, and during festivals in the Kayes region. The “nobles”, for example, expect them to slaughter animals and cook for them by virtue of their status considered inferior. The editorial staff of France 24 Observers went to Mali in 2019 to meet victims of this system.

>> See our report in April 2019 on the caste system in Mali:

“The nobles started to arrive from all sides, trying to prevent our celebration”

Seydou (pseudonym) was present at the party in the village of Souroubiré, when the “nobles” arrived.

We wanted to organize a party, lasting 12 hours, starting September 28. There were a lot of people from the anti-slavery association.

Video of the Independence Day on September 28 shared with the FRANCE 24 Observers team. In the video, a group of people, including young children, dance to music. Some people wear T-shirts with the name of the anti-slavery association.

We saw patrols around the celebration, and we showed them the municipality paper that gave us the authorization to organize the event. A man came to the party, asked to see the organizers, and told us to stop our music. We searched him and found a pistol in his pocket, which we took to the town hall as proof that we were trying to come and injure or kill our members.

After that, the nobles started arriving from all sides, trying to stop us from having our party. They had sticks and machetes. They said: “No one is moving” and: “The slaves will not have a party in our village”. We stopped our music. They started throwing stones at the party and injured people. They had guns and fired in the air to scare us.

A video sent to the FRANCE 24 Observers editorial team shows a group of young men from the “noble” caste carrying sticks and machetes.

“The people they capture refused to be called ‘slaves'”

We all tried to run away, but some people didn’t. [Les nobles] grabbed others, beat them and tied them up. I managed to escape and hide in a field. Some people apologized and relied on them, but others fought back, refusing to be called slaves. Lots of people were injured. They kept those they captured for eight hours before releasing them.

At least twelve people were seriously injured in the attack, one of whom died of her injuries days later, according to ACDE.

“Tensions existed long before this incident”

Although the “noble” caste does not have any legal ownership of “slaves,” discrimination and abuse persist. Those who are considered “slaves” are not allowed to marry someone from another caste, cannot hold managerial positions, and often live apart from other classes.

Mahamadi Kanouté is secretary general of the Association against Domination and Slavery in the region where the attack took place.

Our association fights against the practice of ancestry slavery. But there are others who claim their status as noble, who say that it is okay to fight at all costs to keep the traditional rules. There is a noble class and a slave class, each has its social status.

Slaves have been organizing and creating associations since 2019, to attract attention and fight against the phenomenon of slavery by descent. In the village of Souroubiré, the nobles and the slaves live together. But the tensions existed long before that.

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

Selon l’ONU, in 2021, twice as many people were injured in slavery-related attacks as in 2020.

Between January and July 2021, 62 people were injured in similar attacks. In May 2021, a hundred people, more than half of whom were children, had to flee their villages after refusing to be called slaves. In July, 12 people were injured after men wielding guns and machetes attacked people from the slave class to prevent them from working in their fields.

“We fear that there will be even more violence and conflict if we rebel”

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

One has the feeling that the nobles have the support of the politicians and the authorities, in particular among the local prefects, even of the police. The class of slaves being more numerous than the nobles, we decided to refuse to be called slaves. But we fear that there will be even more violence and conflict if we rebel.

Although formal slavery was abolished in 1905, no current law prohibits the discriminatory practice of descent-based slavery. Anti-slavery associations such as ACDE regularly call on the authorities to enact a law banning the practice.

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