Child Slaves

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Child Slaves Caught in Glittering Traps

The mystery of a ship allegedly carrying a cargo of child slaves grew last night as it docked in Benin. Officials said the ship was not the slaver, but there were still fears children aboard another boat may have been thrown overboard by the anxious crew. It is one grim manifestation of a problem endemic in Africa, where a lucrative business exists to transport children into servitude. National Post correspondent Corinna Schuler traveled to Mali and Ivory Coast in pursuit of the child traffickers.

"He always had this whip, and when you slow down, he cracks the switch on your back and screams: 'Faster!'"- Moumouni Sylla, former slave.

SIKASSO, MALI, and SINFRA, Ivory Coast - Mali's modern-day slave traders do not bother with abductions any more. They lure victims with a smile. "Hey there," a stranger called, leaning out the window of a dented white mini-van as it chugged to a stop on a dirt road. Two teenage brothers looked up at the driver. He introduced himself as Solo. "You looking for work?

Years later, Moumouni and Seydou Sylla recall how eagerly they jumped. "Yes!"
And, with that, one of Mali's most notorious child traffickers had laid his trap.

Moumouni, 14 at the time, and his 16-year-old brother had left the village with dreams of paid employment and possessions their impoverished parents could not provide: a bike and a pair of American jeans.

"Then, come on," Solo beckoned. "I'll take you to someone who will give you a job. You won't even have to pay for transportation."

The next day, the Sylla brothers found themselves captive in a windowless hut -- caught in the web of smugglers who coax unknown numbers of young people out of impoverished Mali each year and sell them into hard labor in the prosperous country next door, Ivory Coast. The Sylla brothers sold for the price of a pair of shoes -- $63 apiece.

The years that followed are a blur of backbreaking labor, vicious beatings, food deprivation and dark nights in captivity.

While politicians and activists elsewhere in the world squabble about whether or not African-Americans should be compensated for the enslavement of their ancestors centuries ago, the United Nations estimates 15,000 Malian adolescents are kept as virtual slaves in Ivory Coast today.

No one knows how many more child workers come from Guinea, Burkina Faso and other countries that border West Africa's economic powerhouse.

The majority of Malian victims are between 15 and 18 years old, according to the International Labour Organization and the United Nations agency for children, UNICEF. But 23% are under 15, and some as young as eight have been smuggled into Ivory Coast through networks of recruiters, transporters and intermediaries who operated with impunity for years.

They work 12-hour days in gold mines, cotton fields and cocoa plantations. Some are held against their will. Others are beaten into submission. Most are simply kept captive with promises of big pay but, in the end, many workers never get a dime.

"This is slavery of modern times," said Youssouf Sangare, the general-secretary of Mali's Ministry for Children and Families.

It does not involve the kind of kidnapping raids that emptied African villages centuries ago, nor the blatant sort of sales that brought international media and Christian groups running to the slave markets of Sudan in 1997.

But what happens here is slavery nonetheless.

"What else can we call it when our children are being deceived and moved across borders like goods for export?" asks Mr. Sangare. "Africans are selling Africans, and this is something we must fight."

"On the very first day, he took our luggage and locked it away. He ordered us to move heavy sacks of cocoa. They were so heavy I could barely lift it. [One boy] could not lift the sacks. The owner took a branch off a tree and started whipping him. He beat him until all his body was covered in cuts and blood. At that moment, I knew he would beat us too ..." -- Moumouni Sylla.

Moumouni and Seydou spent almost five years in the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast. They lost their childhood there. They almost lost the will to live.

The brothers spent every night locked in a windowless prison of a hut with 16 other teenagers, all from Mali. They had no mat or blanket for comfort. "On that first night, we cried," Seydou concedes shyly.

In days to come, the boys lay awake in the darkness and whispered of plots for escape. But by daylight, the fantasy was always replaced by fear. They were in a strange land thousands of kilometers from home, far removed from any village or even a road.

And their master had guns.

Moumouni can picture each weapon: the pistol, the hunting rife, the automatic with five bullets.

"In the morning, he opens the door and follows you to the field with a gun strapped on his back. He watches you the whole time. After the field, he always followed us right back to the room."

From the start, the plantation owner told his young captives he had forked out good money for their "transportation fee." The amount would be deducted from salaries he would pay at the end of one year -- when his crop was sold.

So the brothers followed orders, like all the rest. They harvested thousands of trees by hand, straining, pulling, cutting rock-heavy cocoa pods with machetes and hooks. They carried jute-bags so laden with cocoa the skin on their shoulders rubbed raw. They split open countless nuts and emptied out the seeds for drying in the sun. They packed shipping bags, cleared the fields, planted new crops.

Every muscle ached, but they never complained. "He always had this whip," says Moumouni, "and when you slow down, he cracks the switch on your back and screams: 'Faster!' "

The routine began at 5:30 in the morning and did not end until 8 p.m., six days a week. Sundays were for washing clothes, collecting firewood for the boss and, if time allowed, a little supervised soccer for fun. The only food provided was green bananas, which they boiled and pounded into porridge.

Weeks stretched into months as the boys waited for the owner to deliver their promised salary. Pay day never came.

At the end of one year, the owner said the crop had not earned a profit and he had no money to give. Complaints were met with whips and fists. By then, Moumouni was growing dull to the pain.

"Everybody was beaten. In certain months, he could beat me 10 times ... He tells me to lie down. He ties your arms behind your back and beats you, like this."

To demonstrate the brutality, Moumouni picks up a branch, raises it high above his head and bashes it to the ground. He stirs up dirt as he fixes eyes to the ground and brings the branches whistling down, again and again. Breathless, he stops.

"When your back is all cut, he turns you around and beats you on the front."

"He said: 'Wait, once you are here for two years, I will count out the money for you.' But at the end of [the] second year, he had no money again. I was very afraid. I thought he was going to kill us." -- Seydou Sylla.

Plantation owners place orders for workers with middlemen in Ivory Coast, and the victims are picked up from all across Mali.

"Children get tricked," says Ibrahim Haidara, a Malian law psychologist who works with Save the Children Canada. Recruiters paint pictures of a glorious life in Ivory Coast and promise annual salaries the equivalent of $225 --"more money than they have ever imagined." So they readily accept.

Once a recruiter has secured a teenage worker, he delivers him to transporters, who in turn shuttle groups of up to 20 youths thousands of kilometers from home to the smoggy border town of Sikasso.

Sikasso looks like a typical Africa city, full of beggars, street-side eateries, screaming vendors and rickety vehicles that spew black exhaust. But beneath the colorful buzz, an evil business thrives.

"I brought children here from all over Mali," concedes Abdou Siby, a long-distance driver, "sometimes seven or eight in one van."

Drivers like him are reluctant participants in the trafficking business. Mr. Siby explains that, as a mere driver, he could not refuse when someone else paid the children's fares and the van owner ordered him to deliver them to Sikasso.

Abdoulaye Cisse, president of the local drivers' union, spent years watching adult men arrive in the dusty bus yard here with children in tow. "I can show you where they packed the kids," he says, walking through the crowded station yard.

"Don't be obvious. Just look."

A storage shed lies tucked in a dark corner, behind cheerful vendors who stir cornmeal in big black pots. "The intermediaries stocked the kids in that room overnight and then in the morning someone comes to take them to Ivory Coast."

The room, he says, has not been used in months because a new awareness campaign in Mali has forced the business underground.

But, even today, it is easy to see how children can be smuggled across the border.

A wooden boom gate is all that divides one of Africa's poorest nations from one of its wealthiest. One hour outside Sikasso, the border post assumes a carnival atmosphere as hundreds of people wander across the international boundary with wobbling towers of wares stacked on their heads.

Guards sit under trees and fan the hot air with their caps. Malians do not require visa documents and thousands of rusting mini vans putter into Ivory Coast each week with little inspection -- not much unlike the traffic that flows between Canada and the United States.

Teenagers targeted for cocoa plantations are frequently taken to the central Ivorian town of Bouake. Younger kids, with the most nimble fingers, land in cotton-growing regions that lie just across the border near Korhogo.

There, many children report being locked into a big house, where a new set of intermediaries take control and make the final sale.

"Everyone knew they were selling children from that house," says Abdoulaye Macko, a former Malian diplomat who was dispatched to Ivory Coast in 1996.

"You didn't need a magnifying glass to see child slavery," he says. "In big bus stations, we would see the kids sitting there and then someone would come and say: OK, how much for two children?"

Everyone in the network takes a cut of the profit along the way.

UNICEF notes prices may vary according to the physical and mental capacities of a laborer. Generally, however, traffickers charge the equivalent of $37 in transport fees, plus a commission of at least $42.

So, a van load of 10 children earns the network at least $420. Good money for a few days' work. In Mali, that is more than double what a schoolteacher earns in one month.

Mr. Macko became so enraged, he mounted investigations and spent days monitoring the border in search of suspects. Over four years, he managed to identify 30 child traffickers. Solo, the man who lured the Sylla brothers, "is infamous." But the worst was a group of four women, "very rich VIPs, respected Malians living in Ivory Coast."

Even when Mr. Macko caught them red-handed -- with 30 kids locked in a hideaway house --Malian police let them walk free. "No one had any concept of child trafficking," says Mr. Macko. "I got the feeling I was the only one who cared." The network continued to operate.

"I was always looking for them. I didn't go to police. I went to traditional men. I bought two white roosters and made a sacrifice so that my sons would be seen. After three years, I thought they were dead." -- Drissa Sylla, father to Moumouni and Seydou.

Recruiting new victims is easy in Mali, for one reason: poverty.

This nation of 11 million people ranks seventh from the bottom on the UN's development index of 174 nations. Parents have an average of seven children, and the vast majority of people live on less than US$4 a day. Only half the school-age population has ever attended class. Sixty per cent are illiterate.

Such heart-wrenching social conditions make a mockery of the UN Convention on the Child and a long list of heartwarming declarations Mali has signed. Rural parents routinely put children to work in their fields. By the time they reach adolescence, most farm boys are dispatched from home to find paying jobs and help support younger siblings.

Source: Corinna Schuler, National Post (4/17/01)  

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