Mauritania : silent victims prove harder to find

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By Nellie Peyton | @nelliepeyton | Thomson Reuters Foundation | Wednesday, 7 November 2018 01:00 GMT

DAR EL BARKA, Mauritania, Nov 07 Resoomer

- Day after day, Aminetou Mint Yarg and her fellow villagers in southern Mauritania haul water from the river and tend to their crops under a burning desert sun. When the harvest is good, they come from the city to take their part. Yarg is descended from a family of slaves that have for decades served a family of masters. Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, the last country to do so, and criminalised it in 2007.

There have been just four prosecutions of slave-owners in its history, with dozens of cases currently in courts. The Global Slavery Index estimates that two percent of the population, or 90,000 Mauritanians, are enslaved. The government rejects international figures, saying cases of slavery exist, but the practice is not widespread.

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Though outlawed, slavery persists in Mauritania. Photojournalist Seif Kousmate spent a month there photographing and talking to people touched by its blight

«Thousands of slaves is difficult to hide, » said Hamdi Ould Mahjoub, director general of the national agency for the fight against the after-effects of slavery, integration and poverty, known as Tadamoun.

Mot du directeur général

Le lancement du site web de l’Agence Nationale TADAMOUN est, pour moi, l’occasion de rappeler l’importance des différents outils communicationnels pour mieux valoriser le travail de l’Agence. La communication constitue le phare de toute action et représente l’une des composantes essentielles de notre plan d’action général.

«I would like for someone, objectively, to come and look for them, » he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Most are hidden in plain sight, rights groups say.

  • «Of course if you’re expecting to see people in chains then you won’t see that, » said Anti-Slavery International.
  • The dependency relationship can be much more subtle, much more invisible than that.


Outside the capital Nouakchott, the countryside is dotted with villages of only Haratines, sometimes called black Moors. Today many descendants of slaves live freely because their labour is not needed, he said.
Everyone knows who has a master that still comes often, or who has a daughter with the master in the city, Ramdhane said.

  • Slavery is a word spoken in whispers in Mauritania, where the most prominent abolitionist, Biram Dah Abeid, is also a political opposition leader and has been jailed several times, along with other activists.

Abeid was arrested most recently in August, shortly before parliamentary elections, and remains behind bars. His anti-slavery group, the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement , aims to expose cases of slavery to the authorities, who are then legally obliged to intervene. He remembers, as a teenager in the 1980s, explaining to his mother and sister that they did not have to live in servitude.

New forms

The group operates on the belief that if slaves want help, they will seek it. And they do – arriving in large numbers from the countryside in search of a fresh start. SOS Esclaves runs literacy courses and job training programmes, and helps former slaves get identity papers and healthcare. But for many, freedom becomes a new form of subjugation, activists said.

«The boy who herded cows becomes the chauffeur. The man who starts a fish processing company and needs workers will recruit his former slaves, » Ramdhane said.

Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

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