Shackled for life: the nation where slavery still thrives
An estimated 18% of the Mauritanian population is locked into serving their masters for life
“I have been hit, tortured, humiliated – I’m always the first to wake up and the last to go to sleep,” says Habi Mutraba, breaking into tears.
Habi, from the west African state of Mauritania, was, like an estimated 600,000 of her fellow citizens, enslaved from birth. Her mother was impregnated by her “master” and when Habi was born she was given to a member of his extended family.
Like most other Mauritanian slaves, Habi would tend to her master’s livestock or work in the household, fetching water and preparing food. She says she was regularly raped by the head of her household after he threatened her with a knife, and later became pregnant by his son following another rape.
“None of us ever went to school,” she says. “None of us had identity or civil papers. I received no support, no one could help me. I was totally at the mercy of my masters.”
Habi’s experiences are not unique. Officially, Mauritania made human slavery illegal in 1981 – the last country in the world to do so. However, it did not introduce criminal laws enforcing the ruling until 2007, and SOS-Esclaves, the anti-slavery NGO, estimates the number of those enslaved in the country is still as high as 600,000, or 18% of the population – more than any other country in the world.
The culture of slavery dates back hundreds of years and is passed along family lines, with slaves like Habi born into servitude. The practice is so entrenched and the slave population so isolated that most of those affected know no other reality. It is rare for a slave owner – who include government officials and even judges – to free a slave, and slaves are reportedly traded between families like livestock.
They are put to work either in their master’s home, carrying out mundane tasks such as cooking and cleaning, or sent out into scrub and desert to herd animals such as goats or camels in arid, remote areas of the country for months on end.
Despite the horrors that she has endured, Habi classes herself as one of the lucky ones. She managed to escape her masters after Biram Dah Abeid, a local anti-slavery advocate, helped to organise her rescue after she had a chance encounter with her brother, who had already been freed. Abeid is being held in the country’s Nouakchott Central Prison without charge (his sixth time behind bars) and last week smuggled a letter to this publication detailing his abuse in jail. In it, he alleges he has been denied sleep, regular showers and a mosquito net as well as visits from family and friends, medical care and legal advice.
“For the last two weeks we have been thrown into the corridor of a cramped courtyard, with no roof to shelter us from the rain,” he writes.
As was the case with slavery in the West, slavery in Mauritania is defined by racial divisions. The country’s political and economic class is dominated by the light-skinned beydan Berber group, which makes up 30% of the population. Traditionally, herds of livestock – an invaluable resource in a country where 90% of the land is consumed by the sands of the Sahara Desert – were owned by the beydan who for centuries forced those from the haratine ethnic group, black sub-Saharan Africans, to tend to their livestock in return for sustenance.
Often members of the haratine were kidnapped in raids and “given” to the beydan. The legacy of this practice has endured to the modern day through a rigid caste system and the great majority of the nation’s wealth remains concentrated among the beydan and their descendants.
Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Mauritania’s authoritarian president, is beydan, as are his close political allies, including Yahya Ould Hademine, the outgoing prime minister. Discrimination remains rife and even those haratine who are now free face severe legal and practical obstacles in obtaining a property, land or employment. There remains little incentive to change the system since many leading political and judicial figures own slaves.
“The government turns a blind eye because, traditionally, they are the affluent ethnic group who owned slaves. They have run the country and still do,” explains Jakub Sobik, of Anti-Slavery International.
Abeid believes his arrest was carried out to stop him from taking his seat in the newly elected Mauritanian national assembly. “It was necessary to prevent me from entering the assembly and, better still, to invalidate my claim to run for the presidency of the republic in 2019.”
Abeid’s supporters held a peaceful protest last Wednesday calling for his release, but said they were met with brutality from police. At least nine people were injured, including Leila Ahmed, Abeid’s wife.
Mauritania, an ally in the West’s fight against irregular migration and terrorism in the Sahel, has largely avoided criticism from Britain and wider international community. The UK, France and Spain spearheaded plans this year to increase EU funding for the G5 Sahel, of which Mauritania is a part, to more than £85m, and the country has received millions in EU funding intended to stem migration.
“The only solution to ending slavery in Mauritania is that Europe and the US, as well as donors, stop giving money to the Mauritanian regime,” Abeid says.
Meanwhile, international advocacy groups are also denied access to the country, leaving only internal activists like Abeid to fight for change.
Barkam Tusakim, 30, was taken from her enslaved mother when she was just five. “They raped me, all the time, and so I became pregnant with my first child,” she says. “They did this all the time, every day, whenever they wanted. My daughter was taken from me when she wasn’t even five and so it was that my own story was repeating itself.”
She pauses and wipes away tears. “To really stop slavery, an uprising of all the former slaves is needed, to unite with human rights movements globally.”
The Mauritanian government did not respond to requests for comment.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2018)