By Adam Nossiter/New York Times
BOUTILIMIT, Mauritania — The protesters gathered in front of the low-slung police station, yelling “No to Slavery” and “Freedom.” They had come from across the country to demand the arrest of a family accused of holding a slave since childhood, but they elicited little more than dispassionate stares from the police officers sitting silently before them. The subprefect of the district went to take a nap in the afternoon heat.
This year, the government gingerly acknowledged that an age-old scourge still haunted this nation, creating a new agency to wipe out the “vestiges of slavery” here. In a nation where the authorities have long denied the persistence of the problem, the willingness to emblazon the word “slavery” on a government agency — with a gleaming sign announcing it on a prominent street in the capital, no less — was a significant turning point and a step in the right direction, experts say.
But to the Mauritanian activists who have pressed for action for years, sometimes at their own peril, the change is an ambiguous one: Is the government really committed to ending the centuries-old practice? Or is it trying to project a newfound resolve that it does not truly have?
“Vestiges, they are talking about ‘vestiges,’ when people are still in chains,” said Balla Touré, a member of the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionism, an antislavery group here, dismissing the new agency as “nothing but smoke and mirrors.”
Slavery has been abolished in Mauritania for decades, and the director of the new government agency — called “The National Solidarity Agency for the Fight Against the Vestiges of Slavery, for Integration, and for the Fight Against Poverty” — says that no instances of the practice have turned up since he started work in April.
“The government has not been fully engaged with this matter since independence,” said the director, Hamdi Ould Mahjoub, vowing to do better. Still, in the months he has run the antislavery agency, he insists, “We have not found any cases of constraint.”
By some measures, this West African nation has the highest prevalence of slavery in the world, with estimates that as many as 140,000 or more of the nation’s 3.8 million people are enslaved, primarily by “masters who exercise total ownership over them and their descendants,” according to the 2013 Global Slavery Index, which tracks the phenomenon around the globe.
“Objectively speaking, they are slaves,” Zekeria Denn, an expert at the University of Nouakchott, said of Mauritania’s intricate web of servile relationships. He pointed out that master-slave dynamics varied widely in Mauritania, but that often the most pressing element of coercion was extreme poverty or a belief that Islam forbids breaking out of bondage.
In the sandy courtyard of an activist’s compound in Nouakchott, the capital, young women and men quietly spoke of being beaten and forced to work menial tasks from childhood in the households of lighter-skinned elites — often a mixture of Berber and Arab people locally called the Moors — for no pay.
“I was born in slavery,” said Said Ould Ali, a rail-thin teenager of 15. “I grew up in the Moor family in which my mother was born, and my grandmother.”
M’Barka Mint Essetim said she was taken from her mother by a Moorish woman at the age of 5, at first merely to fetch things from the store. As she grew up in the household of “a very high, well-connected family” in the capital, she said, her duties expanded: taking the goats into the bush, fetching wood, sweeping, cooking.
“This was a miserable life,” said Ms. M’Barka, now about 25.
The activist hosting her, Biram Dah Abeid, himself the son of a slave, added that Ms. M’Barka was first raped at 9 and had her first child by her Moorish master at 14. The man’s son also raped her, Ms. M’Barka said as her 11-year-old daughter, unacknowledged by her former master, sat next to her under the tent.
For years, the government dominated by Arabs, white Moors as they are known here, refused to admit that slavery persisted in Mauritania — that thousands of its black citizens, often women, were still forced to work as domestic servants, as camel and goat herders, from early childhood, in the same families that mothers and grandmothers had worked in. In 2007, a law criminalizing slavery was passed. But three years later, nobody had been prosecuted under it, according to a 2010 report by a United Nations investigator.
Then, the antislavery movement in Mauritania took a radical turn, forcing the issue more into the open. Last year, Mr. Dah Abeid publicly burned venerated Islamic legal texts that justified slavery. His actions provoked furious mobs demanding vengeance, fatwas against him and swift retribution — imprisonment and a raid on his house — from the authorities in a Muslim country where Shariah law reigns.
Nonetheless, Mr. Dah Abeid’s actions increased pressure on the government to act, activists and observers say.
“We were making a lot of noise,” Mr. Touré said. “We were mobilizing the haratins,” he said, using the term for freed slaves.
But even with the new agency, antislavery activists say, punishment has been minimal or nonexistent in many of the cases they bring to light. Often, they say, family members accused of holding slaves are quickly released or not troubled at all by Mauritanian authorities.
The protesters gathering in front of the police station in Boutilimit, about 125 miles southeast of Nouakchott, said that a local family had held, and sometimes beaten, an 18-year-old girl, Noura Mint Mourada, since the age of 4. Her mother had worked in the same family, they said.
“The lady said, ‘A slave doesn’t reply, it only obeys,’ ” recalled Noura in a separate interview.
The authorities briefly detained several members of the family accused of enslaving Noura, but the prosecutor then released them, saying there was no evidence of a crime, activists said. As the protests continued for weeks, activists said that demonstrators were arrested and beaten.
The man accused of being Ms. M’Barka’s former master and attacker, known among local residents as Brahim, remains undisturbed by the authorities. A prosperous store owner in Nouakchott — his store occupies a city block — his family reacted uneasily when asked about the young woman’s relationship to him.
“He doesn’t have slaves,” said a teenage girl who came to the door of their sprawling whitewashed compound on a tree-lined street in the capital’s most fashionable neighborhood. She said her father was away in their fields. “She wasn’t the slave of Mr. Brahim,” the girl said. “M’Barka is not a slave.”
She gave a short laugh: “Slavery is something from the past.”
M’Barka and the antislavery activists who have helped her said she escaped the household when she was allowed to visit her sick mother one day, and simply did not go back. Later, she married the family’s chauffeur, and now lives with him in a rudimentary, leaky wooden shack at the capital’s desolate outskirts. The chauffeur said the authorities had swept aside his wife’s accusations, because of the former master’s connections.
“I live in peace now,” Ms. M’Barka said. “Nobody beats me now.”