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Anti-Slavery Groups Denounce Ongoing Practice of Human Bondage in Mauritania - 2004-09-09

The northwest African country of Mauritania outlawed slavery in 1981, but, despite government denials it still exists, anti-slavery groups say the practice remains widespread.

Sghaira Mint Tesh does not remember the long-ago day she became the property of Arab slave owners. She does not know her exact age, or that of the infant daughter she cradles in her arms. But the young woman, who appears to be in her 20s, has not forgotten the long hours herding animals and hauling water for her lighter-skinned masters in the scrubby brush land of southern Mauritania.

An ethnic African with large dark eyes, Ms. Tesh recounted her life as a slave, which ended only when she ran away two years ago. Today she lives in a one-room shack in Nouakchott, without electricity or running water.

Ms. Tesh says her mother and sisters worked for other households. Her father died when she was a baby. Her former master raped her many times. She claims he is the father of all three of her children.

Ms. Tesh says her Arab owners called her by only one name: Slave. It was only after she ran away, and eventually ended up in Nouakchott, that she learned that slavery was illegal.

Stories of human bondage, like the one told by Ms. Tesh, are difficult to verify independently. But Boubacar Messaoud, head of SOS Slaves, a Nouakchott-based advocacy group, says they are common enough.

Mr. Messaoud, 59, also comes from a family of slaves. He says forms of human bondage remain widespread here, but that many Mauritanians are reluctant to acknowledge the practice publicly. He says even slaves are ashamed to admit their condition.

Mauritania is not the only country where reports of servitude persist. Human rights advocates cite a number of Saharan societies with rigid caste systems, based on color, religion or ethnicity. Slavery flourished in most of these countries long before the transatlantic trade in humans.

Arabs and Berbers who invaded Mauritania centuries ago forced many indigenous Africans into bondage. Intermixing has since blurred skin colors in this desert country of 2.7 million people. But ethnic Arabs are still known as White Moors, and dominate the government, army and private sector. Haratines, or blacks, generally remain at the bottom of the social and economic heap.

Still defining slavery, much less its prevalence here, is a matter of dispute. Mauritania's government claims reports of involuntary servitude by groups like SOS Slaves are exaggerated, and describes a raft of educational and poverty-alleviation programs targeting its Haratine population.

The United States government also cites only "vestiges" and "consequences" of slavery, in the State Department's latest human rights report.

But a number of international human rights groups and local activists say That, while examples of classic slavery have dwindled, new forms of bondage remain as deeply destructive and entrenched in Mauritanian society.

Mr. Messaoud of SOS Slaves says many slaves are so attached to their masters, that they cry when they die. Others continue living with their former owners long after they are technically freed. He said still other ex-slaves pay former owners with crops and other forms of remittances.

Mr. Mesaoud has been imprisoned several times for speaking out against slavery. His organization is not recognized by the Mauritanian government.

Other abolitionists, like lawyer Ahmed El Hadj Sidi, say that while Mauritania's anti-slavery laws are good ones, the government lacks the political will to enforce them.

Mr. Sidi says few slavery cases ever wind up in court. He says that's because government officials and slave owners would rather settle out of court. And many slaves don't know their rights. Mr. Sidi comes from a family of slave owners. Today, he represents ex-slaves, free of charge.

From her ramshackle home, Ms. Tesh said she was thinking about taking her former owners to court. But for the moment, she said, her biggest priorities were finding a job and sending her children to school.