Since the coup that unseated Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Touré, this past summer, most Africa watchers have worried about the growing influence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
This week, western African states are expected to submit a report to the United Nations on how they would go about driving the Islamists out of Mali.
Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, however, is preoccupied with how al-Qaeda feeds a more systemic problem: slavery. While Mali officially abolished slavery in 1960, an estimated 200,000 people are still effectively in bondage, owned by masters who deed them down through generations.
Ag Idbaltanat is the head of Temedt, Mali's anti-slavery organization. The word "temedt" means solidarity in the language of the Tuareg, one of the ethnic groups most frequently enslaved in Mali.
Rather than wading into villages and spiriting slaves out to safety, Ag Idbaltanat’s organization is a lifeline for those who work up the nerve to run, or negotiates with their masters.
'The slaves that we have been able to free…has really been an effort of making slave masters aware of the harm they are doing, not only to the people involved…but to the community at large.' —Malian anti-slavery activist Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat
"The slaves that we have been able to free, both before and since the crisis in Mali, has really been an effort of making slave masters aware of the harm they are doing, not only to the people involved, not only to the slaves, but to the community at large," said Ag Idbaltanat during a recent visit to Toronto.
Reviving the old ways
Unfortunately for Temedt, he says, the current turmoil in Mali is encouraging some to revive the old ways.
"We documented 18 cases of children who had been reclaimed by their slave masters. With the support of traditional chiefs in the area, we were able to liberate four of those children and return them to their families," he says.
For their efforts, Ag Idbaltanat and Temedt were presented with the Anti-Slavery International award at a ceremony last month in London, England.
Right now, he's in Toronto, visiting his Canadian wife, Heather Johnston, and their two children, who left Mali earlier this year when security began slipping and schools started closing.
The romance between the vivacious Canadian and the stoic Tuareg leader began while she was working for OXFAM in Mali, and he was promoting education for girls in nomadic communities in 1999.
"I think he's quite frustrated to be here," Johnston says. "There's a lot going on in Mali right now."
To illustrate the social legacy of slavery, Ag Idbaltanat recounts the story of Timizwak, a slave for 35 of her 36 years.
You see it in her eyes as she stares into the camera, her youngest child on her knee — a child of rape, just like her other two. Until 2011, the four of them were owned by a Mali master who inherited them from his father, as if they were livestock. This is largely how they used her – as a shepherdess, looking after animals until the day she heard about Temedt.
But now its work, too, is at risk.
A complicated history
Mali was a haven of learning for 400 years beginning in the 12th century. Its constitution, known as the Kurukan Fuga, is regarded by some as one of the earliest declarations of human rights, and covered men, women and slaves — which seems like a contradiction.
But slavery in Mali is ages old, too. Not even the arrival of democracy in 1991 changed that.
Democracy made Mali a darling of the west, a presumed model of governance and stability. But by some accounts, it wasn't a very good democracy for anybody but drug lords.
President Amadou Toumani Touré escaped two coup attempts before the third one succeeded this past March. In the chaos that ensued, more bad things happened. Tuareg separatists overran the north, until their revolution was hijacked by forces linked to al-Qaeda.
Today, at least four rebel groups compete for turf in Mali. But the top dog seems to be the one they call the Movement For Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a no-prisoners, no-negotiations splinter group from AQIM.
This is the one Ag Idbaltanat has to talk to when he goes slave-hunting, the same group that recently overran his hometown.
A son of slaves
Ag Idbaltanat cuts an exotic figure as he walks into the CBC wearing a long, taupe turban and a blue pouch around his neck, which is full of powdery chewing tobacco mixed with burnt straw.
Not so obvious in his elegant manner is that he is the son of slaves, born in Mali in 1956, shortly before it was abolished.
Thousands in Mali are still born into bondage, and the situation is made worse by the current crisis, which inhibits his organization's ability to do its work.
"[Temedt’s] activities have slowed down or stopped because of the conflict and the laws that did exist are no longer applied," Ag Idbaltanat said.
The only law in some parts of Mali now is the Islamists' own harsh version of sharia law.
And most often, its victims are the low-caste, darker-skinned slaves and their descendants — the Tuareg, like Ag Idbaltanat.
But it’s the hand he's been dealt, and Temedt has to play it.
"Yes, AQIM is there. But not with an overt presence. They operate as part of two other groups that are actually governing different regions in the north, MUJAO and Ansar Dine.
"Nobody will actually say, 'I'm from al-Qaeda,' though al-Qaeda is behind those organizations.
"If we're organising activities anywhere that's now under the control of either of these Islamist groups, we let them know the activities are happening because they are the authority figures now. And they let us go ahead with our activities."
This month, the UN is expected to sign off on a proposed intervention force of approximately 3,300 soldiers drawn from west African states, with a mission to go into Mali to confront and scatter al-Qaeda.
Several European governments are offering non-military assistance, as is Canada, the only non-European Union country to do so.
"We certainly stand ready to support the organization once its needs are identified," said Rick Roth, press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
"Canada is exploring with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union (AU), and the United Nations (UN) on finding solutions to bring back democracy and stability to Mali," he said.
It may take another six months or more for the intervention force to assemble and arrive.
You'd think it would be something Temedt might welcome. Although MUJAO overran Ag Idbaltanat’s hometown, his thoughts on intervention are measured.
"If troops are sent in, and there is conflict between the troops and the rebels, what will happen to the most marginalized people in that region?
"Even if they succeed in getting rid of the Islamists tomorrow, slavery will still exist. It's still a question of peoples' attitudes. It's a question of laws.
"Ending slavery in Mali, that's a different fight. The army cannot end slavery in Mali. People fighting will not end slavery in Mali.
For now, this much is true.
After 35 years in captivity, Timizwak is finally free. She and her three kids are no longer slaves. It was a struggle to reunite the family. Mali’s police weren't a big help. But the efforts of Temedt and tribal leaders got it done.
Three freed — 199,997 to go. But with a grinding guerilla war now looming, Mali’s slaves are in a precarious position. "These poorest, most marginalized people, including people who are living in slavery in the north of Mali, they are the straw under the fighting elephants," said Ag Idbaltanat.
"They are the people who have no hope. They are the straw that gets crushed under the elephants."