And then, out of nowhere, USA Today, of all places, blows the whistle on Tuareg slavery this week. They trumpeted that the Tuaregs fleeing the advancing French and Mailian troops have been "taking with them some of their most important possessions-- slaves." Until now all the coverage has been about how the mean Malians have been killing the poor innocent Tuaregs they get their hands on. No context whatsoever-- NONE. That might be just fine for the NY Times but USA Today just put the paper of record to shame.
The Tuareg tribes that overran Mali's military with the help of Arab extremist groups aligned with al-Qaeda have long held slaves and many of the captives are from families that have been enslaved for generations.
"It's no way to live, without your freedom," said Mohammed Yattara, a former slave who ran away from his Tuareg masters years ago.
"You depend on them for everything. If they tell you to do something, you have to do it, or they will beat you," he said as he sat with the chief of the village of Toya and among men and women who were descendants of slaves or former slaves.
"You can marry, but if the master wants to have sex with your wife, he will. Everything that's yours is theirs," Yattara said.
Tuaregs are a semi-nomadic people of North Africa's Sahara desert whose traditional land was divided into several nations, the borders of which were drawn by European colonialist powers.
They predate the Arab tribes that moved into the region centuries ago and in Mali, a former French colony, Tuaregs lived primarily in the north part if the country.
But in March, armed Tuaregs took control of the north from the Mali government and marched south with Islamists aligned with al-Qaeda. They took over the city of Timbuktu and threatened the capital of Bamako. The Islamists imposed strict shariah, or Islamic law, on inhabitants it controlled.
Some Tuaregs took advantage of their newly won control to reclaim freed or runaway slaves, mostly black Africans.
The French military arrived in January and retook Timbuktu from the Tuaregs, who fled into the desert or refugee camps in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mauritania, some taking slaves with them. Tuaregs and Arabs who failed to escape have been summarily killed, activist groups have said.
Human Rights Watch said the Malian army and black African civilians are holding all Tuaregs and Arabs responsible for the recent months of terror and human rights abuses, whether or not they participated in the crimes.
Yattara is one of the few accessible witnesses who was willing to discuss slavery under the Tuaregs.
Like many other residents of his village, Yattara is a farmer in the rice and hay fields in the river's surrounding wetlands.
Each of Mali's dozens of ethnic groups has a traditional occupation, and Yattara is one of the Bella ("slave" in the Tuareg language), the black Africans who have inherited their slave status.
Though slavery was outlawed in 1960, Mali is one of the countries in the world where the practice of human servitude flourishes, with as many as 200,000 Bella living a life of hereditary enslavement.
Not all Tuaregs own slaves, and not all slave owners are Tuareg. There are also black Malian ethnic groups who own Bella slaves.
But in the Timbuktu region, only Tuaregs own slaves. Not only were the Tuareg seen as supporters for the Islamist rebels' harsh rule over the last ten months, but their slave-owning ways fanned racial animosity in northern Mali.
Like all other slave children, Yattara never went to school, and to this day he is unable to read and write. "But my son is in school now," he said proudly.
Yattara said he believes he is in his early 40s but is not certain of his exact age because Tuareg masters do not file birth certificates. He fled his masters as a young man and during his travels to Senegal and Ivory Coast he discovered that slave-owning was in fact illegal.
"In my father's generation, slaves weren't thinking to be free," Yattara said. "But now there are many slaves who want to be free, and they try to find a way, but they are afraid."
In the Timbuktu region, slaves work on farms or as household servants or shepherds. Deeper in the vast desert of the north, inhabited by Tuaregs and Arabs, the slaves mine salt, a back-breaking task done under the Saharan sun.
Salt is the north's main economic product and black slaves deliver the giant grayish slabs by boat or truck to the black Africans, who then take it to markets in the south.
Yattara and his companions agreed that Tuaregs were the worst slave-masters in Mali.
..."In my life I will never forget what it feels like to be a slave," Yattara said. "Whenever I see Tuaregs I will be angry."
And, as we said a few weeks ago, it still isn't time to start planning a vacation in Mali. Seriously, I'd wait. A guerilla war looks likely... and, at least in the north, long-lasting.