From the Guardian, writer Mark Tran talks to a few activists who are working to restore rights to the slaves in Mali.
"The slave population is already defenceless; it will become even more so as the conflict intensifies. We are like the straw that will be trampled underfoot when elephants fight," said Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, an activist who received the Anti-Slavery International award in London last Wednesday.
Slavery was formally abolished in Mali in the 1960s, after the country gained independence from France. However, although slavery is not allowed under the constitution, there is no anti-slavery law and descent-based slavery through the maternal bloodline still exists in northern regions.
People descended from slaves remain the "property" of their "masters", either living with them and serving them directly, or living separately but remaining under their control.
In 2006, Ag Idbaltanat set up the anti-slavery group Temedt, which means "solidarity" in the Tamasheq language of the north. Temedt says slavery is still practised in the far north between Berber-descended Tuareg nomads and darker-skinned Bella or black Tamasheq people.
The descendants of slaves – 200,000 of whom are under direct control of their masters – face threats from all sides because of the current conflict, said Ag Idbaltanat, himself a descendant of slaves.
"We are under suspicion from both the government and the rebels," he said. "Old scores are being settled and anti-slavery activists who have created a lot of enemies feel the threat of violence. We challenged the state and slave owners so now we face threats as there are slave masters among the rebel groups."
Ag Idbaltanat said the first cases of punishment under sharia law by Islamists were imposed on slave descendants, while former masters took advantage of the breakdown of order to recapture slaves they had lost.
"They can act with impunity – 18 children of slaves were kidnapped recently by traditional masters of their families," said Ag Idbaltanat. "Before the rebellion, we had 17 anti-slavery cases before the courts in the north, but the courts are no longer there."
He described as dire conditions in his hometown of Menaka, which was captured by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a Tuareg rebel group, in January. Public services have been shut down, schools are closed, there is no drinking water as there is no electricity for the filtration system, and people now have to fetch unclean water from natural basins in the desert.