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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 of 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.
Source: USA Today | Clare Morgana Gillis