BEDIALA, Ivory Coast — One recent day in this village 20 miles northeast of the town of Daloa in central Ivory Coast, a group of Malian elders gathered under a mango tree for an unusual meeting. A member of the local Malian immigrant committee in Daloa had come to enlist their help.
"We are searching for Malian children who are working on the plantations, young children who are without their parents," said Drissa Diarra, 46, who sells lumber in Daloa.
Some elders nodded.
"Children who are being badly treated," Diarra continued. More elders nodded.
"Have you seen any young children in this situation?" The elders whispered among themselves, then summoned some young people in the village and asked them if they knew of any such children. A half-hour later, the elders had a name: Mombi Bakayoko, 15, who was working on a plantation about 10 miles away.
Diarra went to see Mombi, who was working long hours for no pay, had barely any food and hadn't seen his parents in nearly a year. His master wasn't there, but Mombi couldn't escape because he didn't have any money, didn't speak French and didn't know where he was. To make sure he didn't try to leave, his master had confiscated his identity card.
Diarra had no legal authority to free Mombi, but he hoped to negotiate Mombi's release -- or at least ensure that the boy got paid.
A void to fill
There are 126 Malian immigrant committees in Ivory Coast, one in virtually every town and village in the country's cocoa-producing regions. They usually deal with villagers' day-to-day problems, but foreign child-protection agencies and the Malian government have tapped them to fill a void: West Africa governments are just starting to deal with the child-slavery problem and lack the resources to eradicate it.
The government of Mali first became aware that Malian children were being enslaved in 1991, said Sibiry Dembele, a Malian child-welfare official in the town of Sikasso, a hub for child trafficking. But an emergency plan to identify offending farms and send people into Ivory Coast to free the children and bring them home wasn't launched until April 2000, and it was done mostly with support from foreign donors such as Save the Children Canada.
The Malian government had "no specific budget up to now" to fight child trafficking, said Dembele. "Unfortunately, this plan is not as operational as we wish. There is the political will to face the problem, but finances are lacking."
Between January and May, 324 minor boys were sent back to Mali, some from farms and some who were stopped after they had been taken across the border with Ivory Coast. Malian immigrant committees such as the one in Daloa played a role in identifying and freeing a number of them, Dembele said.
Although the committees have no formal power, they wield authority in the immigrant community and among farmers who use Malian workers. Most committee members are respected elders who work closely with Malian government officials.
Many of the farmers who use young slaves are Malians themselves, and sometimes talking to them is enough to win a slave's release. The committees send summonses asking the farmers to come to their meeting place, or committee members visit the farms.
Farmers who ignore the requests often find police or soldiers knocking on their doors. The Ivorian government has started cracking down on child trafficking, and farmers worry about being arrested or losing their slaves. So when the committees summon them, most of them show up.
Many Ivory Coast farmers put their own children to work in the fields, and don't think they are doing wrong by exploiting the children they get from traffickers. They seldom inquire where the children come from or how old they are. Committee members explain that the children have been delivered by slave traders and urge the farmers to find other workers. But the poor economy and the depressed prices of cocoa and coffee make it hard to get farmers to stop using child slaves.
On one farm north of Daloa, a farmer was forcing 13 children between the ages of 12 and 16 to work at gunpoint. "I had never seen anything like this," Diarra said. "The kids were like prisoners. They were given no food, and beaten by the old man's son."
Network of help
Young slaves who manage to escape know from word-of-mouth to contact the local Malian committees for help.
The committees provide escaped and freed slaves with temporary jobs sellingvegetables or carrying boxes, and they raise money to send the children home. For each child, the committees solicit donations for the $13 bus fare back to Sikasso, $3.50 in pocket money and $2 for food.
Mombi went home to Mali on June 6, a month short of his one-year contract. When Diarra, along with a reporter, revisited the farm June 10, Mombi's master, Sanon Soro, said the boy was sick and couldn't work anymore. Soro said he had offered Mombi medical treatment.
"I told him: 'If you die, people will blame me. They will call me a criminal.' "
But Mombi insisted on going home.
Soro gave the boy back his identification card, which he said he had taken for safekeeping. He also said he paid Mombi $150 after deducting $13 for the month the boy couldn't work and another $13 that he had paid a child trafficker for Mombi.
Even freedom doesn't end the suffering of some former child slaves.
Many of the boys return home exhausted. Aly Diabate and Mamadou Traore, who were freed from a cocoa farm, were as thin as skeletons when they got home to Mali.
"You could see their bones," said their village chief, Kassoum Diabate, who's no relation to Aly. "We thought they would die soon."
Psychologists and child-trafficking experts say bondage kills something inside a child.
"They are not sure of themselves. They have no confidence. They have fear," said Ibrahim Haidara, a psychologist who works for Save the Children Canada in Sikasso.
Many children, especially those who were beaten, have difficulty adapting to their families again, Haidara said.
Aly still remembers the cacao branches snapping in the air, the sharp crack they made on sun-baked skin and the sting that scarred his childhood. "When I came back from the plantation, for a long time I was having nightmares," said Aly, 14. "I can still feel the beatings."
Save the Children Canada is building a rehabilitation center in Sikasso, called Horon So, which means "Freedom Center", to treat former child slaves for psychological problems and help them become children again.
A key counseling method is simply to let them play with one another.
"These kids have been robbed of what is most precious to them. Their childhood has been stolen," said Michel Larouche, the West Africa director of Save the Children Canada. "Now they have to find their smile again, their family, their life. They have to laugh."
Some children, however, never regain what was taken from them. Mamadou's father died while he was a slave in Ivory Coast. When villagers told him, the day he returned, he didn't cry.
Four years of whippings, beatings and lies had hardened his soul and snatched away his innocence.
"What can I do?" asked Mamadou, in a low, emotionless voice that suddenly seemed deeper and older than his 19 years. "He's dead. It is God's will."