Attack reveals Mali’s brutal and ongoing caste system


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

Videos shared online show a heartbreaking sequence of events: What started out as joy and dance was degraded into a bloody scene of humiliation when a group of people who consider themselves “noble” 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 remain the norm. Slavery was outlawed in Mali in 1905, but the descendants of former slaves are still labeled as such, and children inherit “slave” status from their mothers.

Those belonging to the slave caste are regularly disenfranchised and humiliated, and during festivals they are sometimes expected to sacrifice animals and cook for the nobles. Those who fight against the designation of slaves are often subjected to violent attacks. This is what happened in Souroubiré, when members of an association against slavery, the Association Against Domination and Slavery (ACDE), gathered to celebrate Independence Day.

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

>> See our 2019 report on slavery by descent in Mali:

‘Nobles started pouring in from everywhere, trying to prevent us from having our party.’

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

We wanted to organize a 12 hour party starting on September 28th. There were a lot of people from the anti-slavery association. We celebrate 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].

A video of the independence day party on September 28 shared with the Jowharobserver team. In the video, a group of people, including some young children, dance to the music. Some people wear T-shirts with the name of the anti-slavery association.

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

Then the nobles began to arrive from all sides, trying to prevent us from having our party. They had sticks and machetes. They said: “Nobody move” and “The slaves will not make a party in our town.” We stopped our music. They started throwing rocks at the party and hurt some people. They had pistols and they fired into the air to scare us.

A video shared with the JowharObservers team shows a group of young men from the “noble” caste carrying sticks and machetes.

Screenshot of a video taken on September 28 showing two members of the “slave” caste who were tied up and beaten. © Observers ‘The people they captured had refused to be called slaves’

We all tried to escape, but some people did not succeed. They caught some people, beat them and tied them up. I managed to escape and hide in a field. Some people apologized and took it back, but others defended themselves. They said that the people they captured had refused to be called slaves. Many people were injured. They kept those they captured for eight hours before releasing them.

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

A caste-based society

Although the noble class does not have legal ownership of slaves, discrimination and abuse still persist. Those who bear the title of “slaves” cannot marry someone of another caste, cannot hold leadership positions, and often live separately from the other classes.

The JowharObservers team spoke with Mahamadi Kanouté, general secretary of the Association Against Domination and Slavery for the region where the attack occurred.

Our association fights against the practice of slavery based on ancestry. But there are others who claim their noble status, who say that it is okay to fight at any cost to preserve the traditional rules. There is a noble class and a slave class, they all have their social status.

Nobles and slaves coexist in the village of Souroubiré, so to speak. But the tension has existed long before this. Slaves have been organizing and creating associations since 2019, to attract 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 a real legal follow-up so that the guilty and accomplices can be tried according to the law. So that they can be punished and serve as an example so that it does not happen again.

There have been twice as many people injured in slavery-related attacks in 2021 compared to 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 children, had to flee their village after refusing to be called slaves. In July, 12 people were injured after people with weapons and machetes attacked people from the slave class to prevent them from working in their fields.

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

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

Although formal slavery was abolished in 1905, there are no laws in force that prohibit the discriminatory practice of slavery by descent. Anti-slavery associations like ACDE are calling on the authorities to enact a law banning the practice.