The Stolen Lives of Mauritania’s Slaves

Slave Camp – Mauritania. Photo: Associated Press


By: Alexandra Kinias

The news from Mauritania, the sub-Saharan country to the west of the African continent on the Atlantic coast, hardly catches anyone’s attention or interest, to say the least. With its vast deserts and small population, hidden among its sand dunes, and an economy that ranks among the poorest in the world, Mauritanians are living on the fringe of humanity. The forgotten nation was brought to the light when CNN made a special documentary that sheds the light on Mauritania’s slavery that is still practiced today.

All men are created equal theoretically applies in Mauritania. In 1981, the country was the last to abolish slavery, but owning slaves was not criminalized until 2007, and since then only one slave owner was prosecuted. The UN reports that within Mauritania’s population of 3 million people, 10% to 20% live in slavery today. These slaves have been born into slavery for generations and a vast number of them are not even aware that a life exists outside of slavery. Most slaves in Mauritania are darker skinned people whose ancestors were captured by lighter skin Arabs, centuries ago.

However, with all these facts in hand, the government of Mauritania denies the existence of slavery in front of the foreign media press. “I must tell you that in Mauritania there is total freedom, freedom of thought, equality between all ethnicities, all the men and women of Mauritania, equality between the genders. There is the phenomenon to which you are probably alluding; I have to be direct with you that [it] has existed in Mauritania and in other countries, which is slavery. And in all communities it has been abolished and it is criminalized today by our government. There is absolutely no problem of that in Mauritania.” Brahim Ould M’bareck, minister of rural development said to CNN.

Filming the documentary, CNN was able to meet with the four segments that constituent the Mauritanian society; slaves, slaves who escaped from their miserable fate, slave masters– who admitted owning slaves — and the abolitionists who have been fighting for years to end this barbaric practice, with minimum results achieved.

Moulkheir mint Yarba, and her daughter Selek’ha mint Hamani, escaped slavery. They told CNN the stories of violence and abuse they lived in. With the help of abolitionist groups, Moulkheir is trying to bring her case to court.

“The man who beat us made us herd a whole lot of cattle, goats, cows, camels. We would be tired and if we come back without some of the cattle he would beat us and fire a gun above our heads. Yes he was beating all of us. Beating us with sticks. He would have sex with us all. My children are actually their children. These are the children of my masters.” Moulkheir said to CNN.

Physical abuse and rape are common traits in treating the slaves, which they no longer question. They have been living in captivity for multi generations and the shackles are not only chaining their bodies, but their minds too. Most of them are not even aware that they are being exploited. However, the wakeup call came to Moulkheir when she returned one day from herding her master’s cattle to find that her young daughter, barely old enough to crawl, was left to die outside her tent. Moulkheir’s master who was also the father of the child wouldn’t allow her to take a break from work to bury her daughter. For him and other slaves masters the animals they own have more value than their slaves. “Her soul is a dog’s soul,” Moulkheir recalls him saying. She wants to prosecute him for killing her daughter.

The story of Molkheir’s daughter, sixteen years old Selek’ha, is not much different than her mother’s. She recalls her years in captivity with the family that had enslaved her. “I didn’t know anything about it [being a slave] when I was young. You know how I understand they were not my family? When they started beating me and not the other children… He [her master] raped me and I became pregnant. …You know how they killed the child? When the time came for me to give birth, they put me in a car and drove it hard until the baby came out of me and it was dead.”

Not all slaves are lucky enough to be reunited with their families like Moulkheir and her daughter. Most of the escaped slaves are forced to leave their families behind. Abolitionist groups are working under dangerous circumstances with meager resources to end slavery and help the escaped ones to integrate into the world of the free. Their efforts are fought by the government and members of abolitionist groups are targeted and arrested. They are unable to enforce the law that criminalizes slavery because all those who are in power and the decisions makers are slave masters. As much as the government hinders their efforts, the fact that the law was drafted is still a victory for the abolitionists, for it is an acknowledgment that slavery exits. The integration of the escaped slaves into society is a costly process. The centers built by abolitionist groups, where they learn new skills, have not enough funds to accommodate them all.

Many slaves who were born and lived in slavery for so long fail to make outside of slavery. With no skills to survive, and nowhere to go, it makes it very hard for them to break centuries old of slavery. Many sacrifice their freedom and dignity and return back to their masters for food. Having their lives stolen, the escaped slaves live with the emotional trauma and scars of their past. “I think about slavery. Yes I think about it because I can’t forget it all. Because my brother and sister are still there. Also a person like me can never forget about the torture he has suffered. I will not forget it.” Mtala Ould M’boirik, an escaped slave told CNN.

Without much to look for in the future, Moulkheir and her daughter are enjoying what freedom brought them, often as simple the pleasure as drinking a glass of tea. “It feels good to wake up whenever I want.”  Selek’ha said.

Full CNN report: Mauritania’s Slavery Last Stronghold

2 thoughts on “The Stolen Lives of Mauritania’s Slaves

  1. Several anti-slavery activists are being prosecuted for burning Islamic theology books that sanction slavery. Mauritanians, angered by the book-burning incident, took to the streets, calling for the death penalty for the “blasphemous” abolitionists!!

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