The African nation living under the shadow of slavery

“I have been hit, tortured, humiliated – I’m always the first to wake up and the last to go to sleep,” explains Habi Mutraba, breaking into tears.

Miss Mutraba is from the West African state of Mauritania, and, like an estimated 600,000 of her fellow citizens, was 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 on became pregnant by his son following another rape.

“None of us ever went to school,” she said in an interview with the Telegraph, “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.”

 

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Video still of police beating protesters in Mauritania Credit: Telegraph

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 the anti-slavery NGO SOS-Esclaves estimates the number of those enslaved in the country is still as high as 600,000 or 18 per cent of the nation’s population – more than any other country in the world.

The culture of slavery in Mauritania dates back hundreds of years and is passed along family lines, with slaves like Miss Mutraba 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 slave owners – 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 to the 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, Miss Mutraba classes herself as one of the lucky ones. She managed to escape her masters when local anti-slavery advocate Mr Biram Dah Abeid helped to organise her rescue after she had a chance encounter with her brother, who had already been freed.

Mr Abeid is currently imprisoned in the country’s Nouakchott Central Prison without charge – his sixth time behind bars – and last week smuggled a powerful letter from prison to the Telegraph, detailing his abuse behind bars. In the letter, Mr Abeid alleges he has been denied sleep, regular showers and a mosquito net as well as visits from family and friends, medical care and legal counsel.

“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, who make up 30 per cent of the population.

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President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, centre, is part of the light-skinned beydan Berber elite Credit: MICHELE CATTANI/ AFP

Traditionally, herds of livestock – an invaluable resource in a country where 90 per cent of the land is the Sahara – 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.

Mauritania’s ruler – the authoritarian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is beydan, as are all of his close political allies, including out-going Prime Minister Yahya Ould Hademine. Discrimination remains rife and even those haratine that are now free face severe legal and practical obstacles in obtaining a property, land or employment.

There remains little political or incentive to change the system as 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 Mr Jakub Sobik, a spokesperson for Anti-Slavery International.

Mr 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 National Assembly and, better still, to invalidate my claim to run for the Presidency of the Republic in 2019,“ Abeid detailed.

Mr Abeid’s supporters held a peaceful protest on Wednesday calling for his release but said they were met with brutality from police. At least nine people were hospitalised, including Mr Abeid’s wife, Leila Ahmed.

Mauritania, an ally in the West’s fight against irregular migration and terrorism in the Sahel, has largely avoided criticism from the British government and wider international community.

The United Kingdom, France and Spain spearheaded plans this year to increase EU funding for the G5, of which Mauritania is a part, to over £85 million, 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 United States, as well as donors, stop giving money to the Mauritanian regime,” Mr Abeid says.

Meanwhile, international advocacy groups are also been denied access to the country, leaving only internal activists like Mr Abeid to fight for change.

Barkam Tusakim, 30, was taken from her enslaved mother when she was just five years old.

“They raped me, all the time, and so I became pregnant with my first child”, she told the Telegraph. “They did this all the time, every day, whenever they wanted.

“My daughter was taken from me when she wasn’t even five years old and so it was that my own story was repeating itself.”

Miss Barkam paused and wiped away tears as she recounted her story. “To really stop slavery, an uprising of all the former slaves is needed, to unite with human rights movements globally. “Only then I think people will understand that this situation cannot continue.”

 

This article was originally published on The Telegraph .

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