Despite the fierce desert wind and 40 degree Celsius temperature, the exhausted young woman sat with her two children outside a lean-to hut made of rattan mats, on the southern fringes of the Sahara.
Azara, 25, haltingly began to tell the story of her life as a modern-day slave born into bondage, like her parents and grandparents before her. She was owned by a nomadic Tuareg tribesman who roamed the vast expanses of northern Niger.
“I can’t remember any specific times that were bad; my whole past is marked with hard memories,” she told IRIN.
“I had to pound millet and fetch water all the time. I worked day and night. I had to do whatever my master told me to do. It was out of the question to say no.
“If I ever I refused I was beaten so hard. I tried once to resist but he beat me.” In 2003, she finally escaped.
Azara is one of at least 43,000 people born into slavery in Niger, a landlocked West African country with a population of 12 million, comprising eight main ethnic groups.
In 2004, the UN classed the country as the second poorest in the world.
Although it has the world’s highest birth rate, average life-expectancy is just 45 years. Seventy-eight percent of the population is illiterate, according to UNICEF.
Slavery dates back for centuries in Niger. When the country claimed independence from France in 1960, the practice was outlawed, in theory. It was finally criminalised - with a 30-year jail-term on conviction - in 2003, after five years of lobbying by Anti-Slavery International and Nigerien human-rights group Timidria.
Fearing imprisonment under the new law, a Tuareg chief who headed 19 clans in western Niger promised in late 2004 that he would release every one of the 7,000 slaves owned by his people for generations.
Timidria and its partners were overjoyed. After a decade of tireless work, the first slaves ever released in Niger would be set free at a desert ceremony set for 5 March 2005, in the village of Inates, 277 km northwest of the capital, Niamey.
International observers and journalists were invited to witness the historic event.
Anti-Slavery International called it “exceptional” - a worldwide one-off, unlike anything seen since the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade more than a century earlier.
Instead, on the day, no slaves were released.
U-turns and manouevres
Arissal Ag Amdague, the Tuareg chief, stood up before the assembled dignitaries, including a delegation from the Nigerien Human Rights Commission, and denied that neither he nor any of his 19 clans owned any slaves.
|Chief Arissal Ag Amdague backtracked at a meeting held on 5 March, in Ates in far west Niger, on written promises he made to free all 7,000 slaves his people own in western Niger|
“Slavery doesn’t exist in Inates,” he declared. "Nobody has told me they have seen slaves. If someone has slaves they must tell me.”
Dozens of Nigeriens (and one Malian) in Arissal’s territory - and the region around Tahoua, 565km northeast of Niamey - had told IRIN in the days before the ceremony that they had experienced slavery.
The chief himself had signed a pledge with Timidria, dated September 21 2004, entitled ‘Freeing of slaves’, which agreed to the release.
There is still no clear understanding about why he changed his position so dramatically.
Anti-Slavery International says it has spoken to Nigerien and international observers who witnessed Arissal and his subordinates being visited by a government delegation, led by the Nigerien Human Rights Commission, soon before the ceremony was to take place. They say the delegation intimidated the chief and his juniors into denying slavery existed.
David Ould, deputy director of Anti-Slavery International, told IRIN: “We are pretty depressed the events took the turn they did.
“Despite [the Niger’s Human Rights] Commission and the government making strong statements about the new law and their intention to see it enforced, they have followed this with statements that slavery does not exist in Niger, sending out a confusing message about their intentions.”
Ould added “It is also very worrying to hear of the Niger government’s intimidation of the population. We are concerned it appears to be moving away from a position that slavery does exist in Niger to one of denial.”
Niger’s government, which is a signatory to International Labour Organisation conventions against forced labour, adopted the new anti-slavery provisions in the country's penal code in May 2003. They came into force 12 months later.
These provide for prison terms of 10 to 30 years, and fines of one million CFA francs (US $2,123), to five million CFA francs ($10,617) for people found guilty of enslavement.
|Lonpo Garba (right), head of Niger's Human Rights Commission. Garba stated that slavery does not exist in Niger - contradicting estimates of more than 43,000 people in bondage|
Similar penalties are applicable to “a master or his accomplice [who] has sexual relations with a woman considered a slave, or the wife of a man considered a slave”, and “to anyone found guilty of placing a woman considered a slave at the disposal of another person, with a view to having sexual relations”.
Niger’s Human Rights Commissioner Lonpo Garba, who attended the 5 March ceremony, claimed there was no slavery in Niger any more.
He said Arissal only agreed to a staged release in return for cash from Timidria and others; money intended to ease the former slaves’ integration into free society.
“We made a survey which did not prove the existence of these 7,000 slaves there [in Inates],” Garba told IRIN. “The commission does not deny the existence of slavery in Niger in the past, but [there are] not 7,000 slaves in today’s Niger.
“We deem that organising a slave release ceremony is unacceptable as it appears groundless and in contradiction with Niger’s laws” , he announced.
However, the testimonies collected by IRIN, which echo earlier reports gathered by Anti-Slavery International, indicate that the practice is still widespread across the southern Sahara - in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Sudan.
Azara, who escaped into the care of Timidria in late 2003, told how she was never paid for her day-long labours for her master.
“We had to sleep outside unless it rained,” she said.
“Our master was nomadic Tuareg so we lived in tents, moving every two months.”
There have been reports of slaves having to move their master’s tents four times a day, to make sure they are always in the shade.
“It was us slaves who had to fold the tents and move them,” Azara confirmed.
“If it was far away we used donkeys, but if it was close we had to carry it on our head.”
Another young woman, 20-year-old Tamada, fled over the border into Niger from her life of slavery in neighbouring Mali. She has two children – the first born when she was 12.
|Tamada, 20, from Niger, escaped from her life of slavery in Mali. “The situation of a slave is more than I can describe. There was so much violence, verbal insults, spitting.”|
“My master used to beat me so often,” she said.
“When I looked after the animals, sometimes one would run off; if this happened I would be beaten.
“The situation of a slave is more than I can describe. There was so much violence, verbal insults, spitting.
“If we didn’t do what we were told we would be hit so hard. I was made to clear up my masters faeces. I was so afraid of him.”
History of enslavement
Descent-based slavery, where generations of the same family are born into bondage, is traditionally practised by at least four of Niger’s eight ethnic groups. It is especially rife among the warlike Tuareg, in the wild deserts of north and west Niger, who roam near the borders with Mali and Algeria.
Historically, the Tuareg swelled the ranks of their slaves during war raids into other peoples’ lands.
Their demand for bonded labourers increased in the 19th century, when they began to settle in northern Niger and farm, according to a March 2004 report edited by Galy Kadir Abdelkader for Anti-Slavery International and Timidria.
“Slaves constituted the principal labour force in warlike societies,” Abdelkader wrote.
“Their numbers kept increasing and, in the region of Say on the right bank of the river Niger, it is estimated that three-quarters of the population around 1904-1905 was composed of slaves.”
War was then the main source of supply of slaves, although many were bought at slave markets, run mostly by indigenous peoples.
The trade was not driven by international demand as was seen further south in Africa, according to Abdelkader’s report, entitled 'Slavery in Niger, Historical, Legal and Contemporary Perspectives'.
Otherwise slaves were bartered, kidnapped, pawned or passed on as dowry.
Although French colonisers stamped out trafficking and slave markets, they refused to class bonded-workers as slaves, terming them ‘voluntary labourers’ in a 1905 survey.
This fudged classification carried over into independence half a century later (Niger was proclaimed an autonomous republic in 1958, and gained full independence in 1960), when slavery was outlawed under Niger’s first constitution.
However, it carried no penalty.
In a bid to quell dissent amongst the powerful Tuareg – and other slave-owning tribes – the first post-colonial administrations welcomed slave masters into the government.
Niger’s minister of nomadic affairs between independence and 1974 was a provincial chief, who had a powerful interest amongst his clansmen not to discuss slavery.
A 1974 coup ushered in 13 years of military dictatorship under Seyni Kountché, who also brought in slave masters to chair local authorities.
“Chiefs were considered not only as agents of the state, but also as judges, and especially custodians of the traditions,” said Abdelkader.
“In such conditions, it is easy to understand that the ‘justiciable’ slave could not find any attentive ears, since both tradition and religion recognised and legitimised slavery, which was not sanctioned by the law.”
Despite the change in the country’s penal code to criminalise the practice, human-rights groups working in Niger describe ongoing abuses.
“In Niger, slavery is a real and current phenomenon that is alive today,” said Ilguiilas Weila, president of Timidria.
|A slave girl in north west Niger. “I was born into slavery, my parents are also slaves..” She wears a bracelet on her ankle, a symbol of slavery.|
“Masters control their slaves not only through abuse, humiliation and violence, but also through psychological control. The master indoctrinates his slaves and keeps them in complete ignorance and far away from town centres.
“This indoctrination consists of separating the child from his parents from a very young age, in order to traumatise the child, so that he sees himself as an inferior person, born only to serve others and to accept the humiliation that will be inflicted on him throughout his life.”
Weila, whose organisation has 300,000 members and 636 regional offices throughout Niger, explained how religion was sometimes involved: “A slave does not have a family. Left in obscurity, he is often told that God has willed this to happen, in order to cultivate a fatalistic acceptance of his being a slave.
“Wherever they go, slaves are only an addition to the workforce, an accessory whose views or opinions do not count in affairs of social or political management.”
There were high hopes that Arissal’s grand gesture to free all his slaves would serve as a powerful message to other slave masters that the force of the new law was being brought to bear on them.
Preparations for the release took nearly a year. The vast majority of the slaves to be freed had never handled money before, they had no possessions, no concept of trade or of how to handle economic independence.
|A young Nigerien slave collects water from a traditional well in far west Niger.|
Overnight, they would have been handed the choice where to live, who to marry, where to work, and they would for the first time have had the right to demand payment for their labour.
Supported by international donors, Timidria collected enough food, clothing and shelter to care for the first 7,000 freed for six months - enough time to sensitise them to a life making decisions for themselves.
Community schools, cereal stores, seed banks, wells and health clinics were to be established.
Most of the freed slaves were expected to stay where they were, but to be wage-earning employees for their former masters who had until then paid them nothing.
“The biggest immediate change would have been psychological - they would no longer have had to follow orders,” Romana Cacchioli, Anti-Slavery International’s Africa programme director, told IRIN.
“The slaves see themselves, as their masters have always told them they are, as no more than dogs.
“The ceremony was to be symbolic, a first step towards their emancipation and restoring their human dignity.
“It was the beginning of a long road.”
Anti-slavery campaigners will now begin again to pressure the Niger government to search out and prosecute slave masters, as it promised to do in May 2003 when the new law was enacted.
Until then, the only former slaves able to live a free life are those, like Azara and Tamada, who managed to escape.
|Sabila, 15 has been repeatedly mistreated by her slave master, often being raped. She was born into slavery|
Sabila – not her real name – is 15 years old, and was born into slavery. She lives with her master in a village 100 km outside the central Niger town of Tahoua.
Timid and unsure of herself, she spoke to IRIN out of sight of other slaves, in a tattered mud-and-thatch hut outside her village.
“My family are all slaves to my master’s family. I have to work so hard, fetching water and firewood, and other domestic work,” she said.
“He forces me to sleep with him so many times. The times I have tried to refuse he beats me. This all started when I was about seven years old.
“He takes me into his room, unclothes me and rapes me. It makes me so sad. I reported it to my father but he, like me, can’t do anything, because he too is a slave.”
Unusually for a slave in Niger, Sabila was allowed by her master to go to school, after a teacher threatened to take him to court if he refused.
“He was afraid and agreed that if I worked for him in the mornings and evenings I could go.
|A metal anklet worn only by the slave-classes of Nigerien society. There are more than 43,000 slaves in Niger, and while none where the shackles commonly associated with the slave trade, these anklets serve as a powerful symbolic reminder they are classed apart.|
“I have studied up to Class Five, but now he has refused to let me go any longer.
"At school when the teachers taught us about slavery, they teach that it goes back to the transatlantic slave trade and that it doesn’t exist anymore.
“I am too afraid to say anything.”
Sabila’s master has a daughter who moved to Nigeria to marry, and he wants to take Sabila there and give her to his daughter as a gift.
“When my parents found out they were not happy, and asked our master to let me stay with them. He said no, she is my slave, she must come with me.
“I have refused. He is preparing to go now; I am so afraid that he will kidnap me and take me with him.”
The 15-year-old’s future is unclear.
“I am still living and working for him. I have been having problems with my periods, they have not been normal and I have had bad pains.
“The last time I had a period was about three or four months ago. My master raped me three months ago.”