Mbarka Wallet Hallane, 50, a former slave, poses for a portrait in Timbuktu. Across this sand-swept city, thousands of darker-skinned modern day slaves, known as Bellas, are experiencing a sense of liberation, many for the first time in their lives. (Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)

Her light-skinned master no longer beats her with a camel whip. He no longer makes her work from dawn to night without pay. He fled with his family four months ago, along with the Islamists who briefly ruled this historic city.

“I am free,” said Aminaya Traore, a 50-year-old woman who was born into slavery. “I can do whatever I want.”

Across this sand-swept city, hundreds of modern-day slaves are experiencing a sense of liberation, many for the first time. Nearly all the lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arab Moors who for generations exploited them have fled the city, fearing reprisal attacks for supporting supporting the Islamists or the Tuareg separatists whose rebellion helped ignite the Islamist takeover of Mali’s north last year.

“Under the Islamists, blacks were exploited even more by the pink-skinned people,” said Roukiatou Cisse, a social worker with Temedt, a human rights group, referring to the Tuaregs and Arab Moors. “They told them, ‘We are with the Islamists. We are in power. We are the masters and you are our slaves. We will do what we want.’ ”

“Now, the slaves have profited by the pink-skinned people leaving.”

The jubilation underscores how deeply divided Mali’s northern communities became during the 10-month rule of the Islamists, who included homegrown jihadists, such as the Tuaregs and Arab Moors, as well as foreigners with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror network’s West and North Africa branch. A French-led military intervention that began in January ousted the Islamists from towns in the north, though a guerrilla war continues.

Under the Islamists, many Tuaregs and Arab Moors took advantage of their shared ethnic backgrounds with the jihadists and asserted themselves over their black neighbors. The widened rift between the communities could take years, if not decades, to close, residents say.

“It’s a very deep wound that could prove difficult to heal. It could fester for 10, 20, even 30 years,” said Salem Ould Elhadje, 73, a local historian, who has written four books about Timbuktu. “One side no longer trusts the other side.”

In rebellion, a resurgence

Slavery was abolished in 1960 after the West African nation gained independence, and all people are considered equal under Mali’s constitution. Yet there’s no law that criminalizes slavery, making it hard to seek legal action. And there’s little political will to address the problem: Many government officials deny the practice exists.

Today, an estimated 200,000 people live as slaves or in slavelike conditions in Mali, mostly in rural areas, according to Temedt, which means “solidarity.” The advocacy group Anti-Slavery International says that “descent-based slavery” exists in other West African countries as well, including Mauritania and Niger.

Those who have been freed, often by running away, still face discrimination because of their family’s historical status as slaves. Most of the people who have slaves are Tuareg, though some black ethnic groups in northern Mali have also been known to have slaves, who are known as Bella, which means both “black” and “slave.”

Tuaregs used to raid Bella communities, abducting villagers to work for no compensation as shepherds, house servants, laborers in salt mines, even as sexual slaves. Yet during times of famine or other economic crises, Bella have voluntarily entered a bondage system in order to feed themselves. Many remained with their masters out of economic necessity, forced to live with the abuse.

Today, many Bella have assimilated into Tuareg culture, speaking their language, Tamashek, and embracing similar cultural practices, so much so that the Bella are sometimes called the Black Tamashek.

Many slaves who had escaped their masters in remote villages came to Timbuktu in search of work. But with neither vocational skills nor formal education, many were forced to work as servants for Tuareg or Arab Moor families. In the city, according to former slaves, their employers still treated them as if they were their property. But at least they were being paid — although the sums were paltry — were working reasonable hours and were seldom beaten, the former slaves said, speaking freely because their masters were no longer in Timbuktu.

That changed following a military coup in March 2012 that destabilized the government, allowing a Tuareg separatist rebellion to gain force. The Islamists and the al-Qaeda militants joined the rebellion and within weeks had pushed out the Tuareg rebels. The jihadists seized control of Timbuktu in early April and installed an ultraconservative brand of Islamic law, enforced by public amputations, stonings and beatings.

Among the first victims were former slaves, according to human rights activists. Meanwhile, some Tuareg and Arab Moor families took advantage and recaptured escaped slaves, while others placed their Bella house servants under slavelike conditions, beating them and making them work long hours for petty salaries or without compensation.

“The pink-skinned people wanted to bring back the old way of slavery,” said Traore, the former slave. “They told me, ‘If you don’t do whatever we order you to, we will hand you over to the Islamists.’ ”

Other former slaves in separate interviews described similar experiences after the Islamists arrived.

“I was forced to work all day, until late in the night,” recalled Mbarka Wallet Hallane, 50. “Even if I was sick, the family would send to my house to bring me to work. I was working for nothing, no pay and no food. I was just trying not to be beaten.”

Hallane could not leave the family because all government officials had fled Timbuktu, and she feared the family would turn her over to the jihadists.

Descent and freedom

Traore was born into slavery. Her parents and grandparents were slaves of the same Tuareg family in a village 100 miles outside of Timbuktu. So were her three brothers and three sisters.

For as long as she can remember, Traore would wake up before sunrise to fetch water for the donkeys. At 10 years old, she was tending to the family’s small animals. As she got older, she would pound millet for lunch, cook, fetch wood and clean the house. She slept on the floor. She was paid no salary, received no education. She was given food, but even that depended on the appetites of her masters.

“After the family ate lunch, whatever was left in the pot, I ate,” Traore said. “After that, I had to make dinner and wash up afterwards. I went to bed only after the family went to bed.”

And if she was sick or tired, she would be flogged with sticks or whips made from animal skins, she said. “If the father beat me, the children would also beat me next,” Traore recalled matter-of-factly. “It was a very large family.”

When her mother died, the family buried the body with no proper funeral, as they did with all their slaves, said Traore. And when she married another enslaved person and had seven children, they “automatically became slaves.”

Eventually, through conversations with other villagers, she learned that her enslavement was illegal. “I didn’t know I could leave anytime,” Traore said.

In the early 1990s, she and her family fled the village in the middle of the night and came to Timbuktu. Her masters sent men after them, but she threatened to lodge a complaint with the local government.

Traore eventually found a job with another Tuareg family, who paid her $20 a month. The salary was much lower than normal and the hours were long, but she didn’t complain. “They knew I was a slave,” Traore said. “They would threaten to send me back to my owners.”

But when the Islamists arrived, the family’s attitude grew harsher. Their first act was to lower her salary and make her work 18-hour days. Then the beatings started. In November, they stopped paying her.

Today, Traore is poor and unemployed. Timbuktu remains deserted, and jobs are scarce. But her freedom, she said, was worth the price. “For so many years, I was dreaming to be free,” she said. “Once the Tuaregs and Arabs left, I really felt I was finally free. I don’t want to see them again in Timbuktu.”