Mar 19 2012
In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery. Activists are arrested for fighting the practice. The government denies it exists. “On this land, everybody is exploited.” The vast Saharan nation didn’t make slavery a crime until 2007. Only one slave owner has been successfully prosecuted.
CNN An estimated 10% to 20% of Mauritania’s 3.4 million people are enslaved — in “real slavery,” according to the United Nations’ special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian. If that’s not unbelievable enough, consider that Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery. That happened in 1981, nearly 120 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. It wasn’t until five years ago, in 2007, that Mauritania passed a law that criminalized the act of owning another person. So far, only one case has been successfully prosecuted.
The country is slavery’s last stronghold.
Even knowing those facts before we departed, what we found on the ground in West Africa astonished us. Mauritania feels stuck in time in ways both quaint and sinister. It’s a place where camels and goats roam the streets alongside dented French sedans; where silky sand dunes give the land the look of a meringue pie topping; where desert winds play with the cloaks of nomadic herdsmen, making their silhouettes look like dancing flames on the horizon; and where, incredibly, the nuances of a person’s skin color and family history determine whether he or she will be free or enslaved.
That reality permeates every aspect of Mauritanian life — from the dark-skinned boys who serve mint-flavored tea at restaurants to the clothes people wear. A man wearing a powder-blue garment that billows at the arms and has fancy gold embroidery on the chest is almost certainly free and comes from the traditional slave-owning class of White Moors, who are lighter-skinned Arabs.
It’s a maddening, complicated place — one made all the more difficult for outsiders to understand because no one is allowed to talk about slavery. When we confronted the country’s minister of rural development about slavery’s existence, Brahim Ould M’Bareck Ould Med El Moctar told us his country is among the freest in the world. “All people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon (of slavery) no longer exists,” he said.
The issue is so sensitive here that we had to conduct most of our interviews in secret, often in the middle of the night and in covert locations. The only other option was to do them in the presence of a government minder, who was assigned to our group by the Ministry of Communications to ensure we didn’t mention the topic. Our official reason for entering the country was to report on the science of locust swarms; our contacts for that story were unaware of our plan to research slavery.
If we were caught talking with an escaped slave like Moulkheir, we could have been arrested or thrown out of the country without our notebooks and footage. That point was made clear to us in a meeting with the national director of audiovisual communications, Mohamed Yahya Ould Haye, who told us journalists who attempted to report on such topics were jailed or ejected from the country.
More important, getting caught talking about slavery could have put our sources at risk. Anti-slavery activists say they have been arrested and tortured for their work.
Slave masters in Mauritania exercise full ownership over their slaves. They can send them away at will, and it’s common for a master to give away a young slave as a wedding present. This practice tears families apart; Moulkheir never knew her mother and barely knew her father.
Most slave families in Mauritania consist of dark-skinned people whose ancestors were captured by lighter-skinned Arab Berbers centuries ago. Slaves typically are not bought and sold — only given as gifts, and bound for life. Their offspring automatically become slaves, too.
All of Moulkheir’s children were born into slavery. And all were the result of rape by her master.
The attacks began when she had barely begun to cover her head with a scarf, a Muslim tradition that begins at puberty. The master took Moulkheir out to the goat fields near his home and raped her in front of the animals. Moulkheir had no choice but to endure this torture. She’d convinced herself that her master knew what was best for her — that this was the way it had always been, would always be.
It’s impossible, from the road, to know for sure which of these men and women are enslaved and which are paid for their work. Many exist somewhere on the continuum between slavery and freedom. Some are beaten; some aren’t. Some are held captive under the threat of violence.
Others are like Moulkheir once was — chained by more complicated methods, tricked into believing that their darker skin makes them less worthy, that it’s their place to serve light-skinned masters. Some have escaped and live in fear they’ll be found and returned to the families that own them; some return voluntarily, unable to survive without assistance.
Because slavery is so common in Mauritania, the experience of being a slave there is quite varied, said Kevin Bales, president of the group Free the Slaves. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people,” he said when asked about how slaves are usually treated in Mauritania. “The answer is all of the above.”
For many slaves, the idea of being owned by another person and treated as a piece of livestock is normal — and has been for centuries. READ MORE