African boys sold or tricked into slavery to harvest cocoa headed to U.S.

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 18, 2001 

OUROUTA, Ivory Coast — Like many other poor boys in his native Mali, Salifou Kone, a chatty, jovial youth who looked younger than his 18 years, was lured from his home to this neighboring West African nation with empty promises of easy work and a great salary.

Last month, less than three weeks after the slave trafficker who smuggled him into Ivory Coast sold him to a cocoa farmer for $18, the farmer shot and killed Kone as he and three other young men were trying to run away.

"The bullet went through his arm and stomach and he collapsed," said Sidi Sidibe, 19, who was fleeing with Kone. "He kept saying 'He shot me, he shot me.'"

The farmer's relatives buried Kone in an unmarked grave by the side of a dirt road about 75 feet from where he was shot. His parents and relatives found out he was dead five days later.

The farmer, a 40-year-old Ivorian named Lacine Soro, was arrested and charged with murder. A hearing will be held later this year. In a jailhouse interview in Daloa, 20 miles south of here in the heart of this country's cocoa-producing region, Soro admitted chasing the youths who ran away from his farm but called the shooting an accident. "I did not shoot deliberately," said Soro. "The gun had been in the house for six months and I had not touched it. I didn't know it was loaded. I was trying to take it off my back when it went off."

Kone's death underscored the horrific nature of slavery on some cocoa farms. A Knight Ridder investigation found that boys as young as 11 are sold or tricked into slavery to harvest cocoa beans in Ivory Coast, which supplies 43 percent of the cocoa that's imported into the United States to make chocolate. The State Department estimates that as many as 15,000 children are forced to work on Ivory Coast's cocoa, cotton and coffee farms.

Ivory Coast officials acknowledge that child slavery exists on some farms, but they say it's a marginal phenomenon practiced mostly by Malian immigrants, a contention that some Americans have embraced.

Some Ivorians, however, are more outraged by the slavery in their midst.

"What I find revolting is finding a kid of 14 who was practically sold to a farmer," said Lassana Coulibaly, a magistrate in the regional Justice Ministry in Daloa who's worked on two child-slavery cases in the past two years. "They are used in the middle of nowhere, they live in difficult conditions, they are not fed properly and they work 18 to 20 hours. This is slavery. Some will be paid 30,000 francs (about $40) at the end of the year. We should agree this is revolting."

Kone left his grandparents' village in southern Mali in June to look for a job. The tall, well-built youth didn't tell his parents, who were working in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital, that he was coming. He wanted to surprise them.

In Sikasso, a hot, dusty Malian town where dozens of minibus taxis wait to take people across the Ivory Coast border, a trafficker called a "locateur" offered to take Kone to the northern Ivory Coast town of Korhogo for free if he agreed to work for someone he knew there.

Kone said yes. Sidibe, from a nearby village in Mali, also accepted the locateur's offer. Two older Malians, Mama Tereta, 23, and Jacques Sangare, 30, took the trafficker's offer, too.

After the trafficker had smuggled them to Korhogo, paying one police officer a $4 bribe, Soro paid the locateur about $18 apiece for the four young men.

Soro, a cocoa farmer from Ivory Coast's Senoupho ethnic group, said he would pay each of them 10,000 francs (about $14) a month — about a third of Ivory Coast's minimum wage of 32,000 francs (about $42) — at the end of the year. But he also said would deduct the $18 he had paid the trafficker from each of their salaries, Sidibe recalled.

Then, Sidibe said, Soro told them they'd be working on his cocoa farm, several hundred miles away near Ourouta.

Picking and slicing the cocoa pods was hard work, and Sidi quickly developed big calluses on his hands.

Soro, a thin, medium-sized man with a scar on his left shoulder, scolded the four if he felt they didn't work hard enough, and once he threatened to have the police put Sangare in jail for 20 years.

Two weeks after they arrived, the four young men felt they had worked long enough to repay Soro. It was time to run away.

On the night of July 7, Sidibe said, they asked Soro for their bags, which the farmer had confiscated, so they could put their freshly washed clothes back in them. Instead, they packed their possessions. Soro went into his house to take a bath.

Kone and Sidibe ran in one direction; Tereta and Sangare in another. They planned to meet a couple of miles away.

As they walked rapidly, Kone chatted loudly. He told Sidibe they would go to Abidjan to see his parents. They were nearly two miles from Soro's encampment, but Sidibe was still worried. He told Kone to lower his voice.

"If you owe somebody money, he's not going to kill you for that. So don't be afraid," Kone told Sidibe.

Thirty feet later, Kone and Sidibe bumped into Soro, who had brought his son, his brother and a friend. The farmer was carrying a rifle, and he pointed it at Kone.

Sidibe dropped the machete he was carrying and handed over his bag. He moved closer to Kone.

"I said, 'OK, if this is the way things are going, either let's go back to the camp or let's go to the police and we can talk it over. Let's not argue here,'" Sidibe recalled. "I was in the middle of speaking when the shot came."

As Kone fell, Soro's brother, son and friend grabbed Sidibe. Soro removed the spent cartridge and loaded a fresh one, Sidibe recalled.

"Look, I'm not afraid," Sidibe told Soro. "You can kill me if you want to."

But the farmer appeared stunned, too. He stepped back and put down his gun, shaking his head and muttering.

"Now you've created a problem for me," Sidibe recalled Soro saying.

Sidibe promised he wouldn't run away and rushed to help Kone, who was crying for help and begging for water.

"I tried to raise him up but he was feeling the pain in his stomach," said Sidibe.

Soro's friend went to find a truck to take Kone to a hospital, but he didn't come back in time.

"When he died, I laid him on my lap, then I put a bag underneath his head and I sat with him till the morning," said Sidibe, his voice quivering. "I was very, very angry. I didn't know what to do. At the time, if I had the gun in my hand, I would have shot all four of them."

In the jailhouse interview, Soro said he had treated the four young men properly and he denied threatening them. He said he had kept their bags in his room only for "safekeeping," and that he ate the same corn mush he fed them. He said he chased the young men "to beg them to come back and work," and that the shooting was an accident.

Soro turned himself in to the police the next morning, in part because he was worried about his own safety. Word of the killing had spread through the local Malian immigrant community, and the Malian committee in Daloa, a group of elders who were chosen to address the concerns of Malian immigrants, sent one of its members to the place where Kone had been killed.

"I found him just lying there," said Drissa Diarra, 46, the Malian committee member who came with two police officers and a doctor. "I was shocked. I wasn't expecting something like this to happen."

Shortly after Diarra and the police left, Soro's relatives buried Kone beside the dirt road the youth had thought would lead him to freedom.

The next day, about 100 Malian immigrants, angered by Kone's killing and quick burial without proper Muslim rites, descended on Soro's farmstead and burned it down before Malian elders stepped in to calm tensions and prevent any more violence.

Soro's farm is deserted now. His family has fled. A month after the killing, the site was still littered with burned cornhusks, rotting cocoa pods, broken cooking pots and charred clothing. Walls had caved in and the corrugated tin roof was mangled.

After the shooting, 12 other trafficked children, fearing for their safety, fled their farms and contacted the Malian committee in Daloa, which helped them return to Mali, Diarra said. Many of them left their bags behind on the farms, he added.

Sidibe and Tereta are staying with a Malian family in Behablo, a tiny fishing village in southwestern Ivory Coast near the Liberian border. They are waiting to testify against Soro later this year. Sangare has returned to Mali.

Calluses no longer blacken Sidibe's hands. He and Tereta fish for a living, earning an average of 14,000 francs (about $18) a month.

Sidibe plans to go back to Mali after the hearing. Too many bad memories, he said.

On Wednesday, Kone's parents commemorated the 40th day of his death, a traditional observance in some Malian families. They handed out rice, bananas and other food to friends and relatives, fulfilling their duties to their dead son.

"Now it is up to the justice system," said Bakary Kone, Salifou's uncle.

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