Mauritania Slavery Abolished, Not Dead

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Moussa, a 13-year-old Malian refugee, waits for his mother as she visits a doctor in Mbera refugee camp, Mauritania, about 40 km (25 miles) from the border with Mali on 23 May 2012. (Photo:Reuters - Joe Penney)

By: Al-Mokhtar Ould Mohammad

Published Thursday, July 25, 2013

Nouakchott – In the heart of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, slavery persists. Although slavery was officially abolished and banned in this Arab country nearly seven years ago, the practice continues.

Last April, a group of activists mobilized to address this painful reality, issuing a charter on the political, social, and economic rights of former slaves in Mauritania, known locally as the “Haratin.”

The janitor at the headquarters of SOS Esclaves (SOS Slaves) is a man in his thirties called Matallah. His features suggest he is older, and Matallah does not know his actual birthday. He was one of tens of thousands of slaves in the country, some of whom still suffer from their bondage.

Matallah, who was freed only a few years ago, said that he won his freedom by pure luck. “I was herding sheep in the north near the border with Algeria. One day, I was stopped by an army patrol looking for my livestock well. I told the soldiers it was quite far, and that I could not show them the way because my owners prohibited it. Upon hearing this, they promised to free me. I stayed with them at their barracks, and two days later, three of my owners came and claimed I was their son. But the soldiers threatened them, saying, ‘If you come back, no one will know what is going to happen to you.’ A few days after that, news about my case spread, and SOS Esclaves contacted me.”

“To see your mother and sisters raped in front of you, and to be beaten and restrained for the most trivial reasons, are things that must never be tolerated,” he said.

Matallah’s escape from his “masters” would also help secure freedom for his sisters, one of whom supports ten children. Last month, the sisters made it to Nouakchott through the joint efforts of SOS Esclaves and Mauritanian authorities.

Matallah spoke in detail about how his sisters and their children were freed, praising the NGO and the authorities who he said had dispatched military vehicles and dozens of soldiers to arrest his former owners. According to Matallah, they are being detained in the city of Zouérat in the north of the country.

Humiliation and Rape

Unlike Matallah, who was freed a few years ago, his sister Choueida was only freed last month. Today, she resides with her ten sons in a small corrugated metal shack no bigger than six by four meters.

Choueida, 40, who knows no other trade than goat and camel herding, said that the worst of her suffering, other than rape, stemmed from round-the-clock humiliation. “I can never forget the despicable way my masters treated me. When a camel got lost in the arid desert, for example, they would make me spend days searching, and I would not be allowed to return without the animal. And don’t even ask me about the non-stop beating and torment.”

The head of SOS Esclaves, Boubacar Ould Messaoud, a former slave himself, is one of the foremost anti-slavery activists in the country. He said, “One of the most important anti-slavery achievements in Mauritania is that slave owners can no longer overtly engage in this practice.”

Ould Messaoud argued that Mauritania would stand to benefit if slavery is eliminated once and for all, observing that “the exclusion against former slaves is unbearable.” Regarding the proportion of former slaves in government jobs, Ould Messaoud explained, “Out of 223 judges, there are only seven dark-skinned Arabs or former slaves, including one investigative judge. There are no former slaves in any other judicial post…Is this really fair?”

Ould Messaoud is a left-wing architect who graduated in the 1970s from a university in the former Soviet Union. He was the first anti-slavery activist in Mauritania to be arrested because of his activities.

Ould Messaoud said that he was discriminated against at an early age. In 1951, his “masters” refused to send him to school, for instance, and only after much effort did he manage to enroll. Throughout his life, he would quarrel as a result of unfair treatment and people calling him “slave.”

Ould Messaoud recalled how he nearly lost his university education in the 1960s when the Mauritanian ambassador to Moscow threatened to have him expelled if he went too far with his anti-slavery activism.

Following the military coup that overthrew former president Moktar Ould Daddah, the el-Hor, or “freeman,” movement was founded as the first political nucleus for former slaves.

Today, Ould Messaoud, who will soon turn 70, is optimistic. He told Al-Akhbar that enforcing the law would ultimately put an end to slavery, which he said was endemic to Chad, Mali, Niger, and Guinea.

The Origins of Slavery

There is no written history in Mauritania. The culture is mainly based on oral traditions, including the history of slavery. Some researchers, including Hussein Ould Mohannad, believe that slavery in Mauritania began in ancient times with tribes overpowering other tribes and taking their members as slaves.

Human rights expert Mohammad al-Amjad Ould Mohammed al-Amin reckons that many customs, proverbs, and folklore all provide clear examples of how slavery and a caste system of sorts have been entrenched in the country’s history. In his book The March of Freedom: The History of Slavery in Mauritania, Amin wrote that slavery persisted in Mauritania over the past few centuries, with the bulk of slaves being wartime prisoners.

According to observers familiar with the history of slavery, French colonial rulers combated slavery, albeit only in name. When the country gained its independence from France in 1960, the Mauritanian government started cracking down on the practice.

Two decades later, the country’s military rulers issued a law banning slavery. This helped free many slaves, but the lack of proper law enforcement meant that the practice could not be fully eliminated. After the first pluralistic parliament was elected, led by current Speaker Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a former slave himself, parliament unanimously passed a law banning slavery, which is still in force.

A few days ago, authorities established a specialized agency to combat slavery, which will report to the president and has the same rank as a ministry. Authorities said its efforts will center on uprooting the remnants of slavery and implementing development projects focusing on former slaves.

However, unlike the sense of optimism among the public in this regard, Mauritanian politicians are divided about the move. While some believe it is an “important step” toward eliminating the effects of slavery, others said it was just a “public relations stunt.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Great article. But how is the picture above (taken in Mogadishu) relevant at all to Mauritania?

If It wasn't so tragic, It would be funny- guess who Is the vice president of The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) ? the Mauritanian representative.
This Is serious matter, just like when Libya was elected to head the UN women s org and Syria chair the UN security council. Brrrrrrr
No wonder Israel doesn't give a **** about the UN councils and Its retarded off shoots.I wouldn't let any of those morons squeegee my wind shield or walk my dogs.

Indeed, similar to the Jewish Neo-Cons ranting hypocritically about democracy when they were nowhere to be seen when Israel was backing the juntas in Latin America and their death squads, mukhabarat, and their crackdowns, nay some of them were involved in propping up these regimes!

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