BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Slavery Still Widespread in Mauritania

My latest blog on The New Internationalist:

In the small dessert country of Mauritania in Africa, under the scorching sun, slavery still exists. But so does Brahim Bilal Ebeid, a social activist who is vice-president of the anti-slavery group, Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement.

At a seminar on human rights and education in June, Ebeid talked about the reality that still grips parts of Africa.

‘This is not the modern blue-collar slavery. It’s real slavery as we know it,’ he says at the talk held on the sidelines of the 2012 Global Media Forum held in Bonn, Germany.

He talks about his country where a significant portion of the population still live as secret slaves, of people being owned by ‘masters.’ Some people are born slaves, having been born to mothers who are slaves, he says.

As his words echo around the room, so do the gasps of the audience who are unable to conceal their disbelief.

The reality is indeed stark. Some masters rape their slaves and brutally beat them but for lack of gainful opportunities elsewhere, or because they do not know any other life, some slaves end up going back to their masters.

Ebeid and his group have been consistently fighting for the abolition of slavery in Mauritania. Himself a descendant of slaves, he has been jailed in the past because of his struggle to abolish slavery in his country.

The small African country is a conservative society where the Moors ruled and enslaved the black African ethnic group known as the Haratine. Officially, Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, making it punishable with six years imprisonment. But the practice still exists.

Ebeid tells the forum of international participants that Mauritania needs all the help it can get and that there are times when even the media is no safe recourse for Mauritania's slaves.

What is published, he says, is only what the authorities say. And this sometimes is far from the reality.

‘The authorities deny it but search and you will find the truth,’ he urges the media.

As Ebeid ends his jaw-dropping story, the audience is silent, trying to process it all.

I approach him and wish him good luck. He smiles and says he needs all the luck he can get. He doesn’t know what the authorities will do to him when he gets home.

‘Will you be arrested?’ I ask.

‘For telling the truth, maybe,’ he says.

But Ebeid’s courage does not waver. He says he will keep on talking about slavery in Mauritania until the whole world knows about it.