”I trust that God almighty will free my wife from the yoke of slavery,” says Cheikhna Ould Beilil, a middle-aged Mauritanian man, fighting back the tears.
Ould Beilil’s story constitutes rare testimony to the continued practice of slavery in the northwest African Islamic republic, despite claims by President Maaouya Ould Taya’s government that it has been wiped out.
The Sahara desert country officially abolished slavery in 1960 and again in 1980, but it is nevertheless known as one of the world’s few remaining regions where people keep slaves.
Observers say the subject is hushed up. Anti-slavery activists have been handed prison sentences after speaking to Western media.
Ould Beilil spoke to reporters in the poor Saada neighbourhood of Nouakchott, the capital of the former French colony of 2,7-million.
Ould Beilil, who can neither read nor write, is the son of slaves, though he has not been a slave himself.
Ould Beilil belongs to the population group known as the Haratins or ”black Moors”, descendants of slaves formerly owned by the light-skinned Arab-Berber Moors, who dominate the country politically and economically.
Nomadic ”white Moors” used to ride down south to capture black slaves who adopted the Arab-Berber culture of their masters.
It was not a simple case of whites enslaving blacks, however.
Some slaves were light-skinned, and Mauritania’s black ethnic groups such as the Soninkes or Hal-Pulaars also kept slaves. The government says measures against poverty and illiteracy have almost eradicated slavery, but Ould Beilil tells a different story.
”It all started eight years ago, when I met Kelizima Mint Bota in Guerrou,” 570km east of Nouakchott, says the grief-stricken man clad in a black turban and a western-style shirt.
”I wanted to marry her despite her being a slave. The demons of love blinded me.”
Ould Beilil asked Kelizima’s owner for permission to marry her, and moved to Guerrou in order to live with his wife in a shack he built near the slaveholder’s home.
Kelizima bore Ould Beilil two daughters. She also had a son and two daughters from previous marriages.
”The children have never gone to school,” Ould Beilil explains.
They are treated as slaves, with the girls performing household tasks while the boy herds camels. Ould Beilil took the case to a local court, which said in 2003 that his wife should live at his home, but did not comment on the underlying problem of slavery.
”When local police and the prefect realised it was a case of slavery, they told me to leave quickly and to stop claiming rights over my wife and children.”
Ould Beilil believes the authorities feared the anger of the Tajakanet tribe, a branch of which owns Kelizima.
”I could no longer approach my children,” Ould Beilil says.
”Kelizima’s mistress beat my daughter Haina, now four years old, if she tried to come to me.”
The Ould Beilil case has been taken on by two human rights groups, SOS Esclaves and The Mauritanian Association of Human Rights, neither of which is recognised by the government.
Nobody knows how many slaves remain in Mauritania. Some estimates put the number at up to 10% of the population. Slavery used to be common in many West African countries. It survived in isolated Mauritania, where nomadic tribes preserved ancient social classes such as warriors, priests, ironsmiths and musicians. At the bottom of the ladder were the slaves.
Nowadays, slaves are usually acquired in exchange for services or as gifts rather than purchased with money, anti-slavery campaigner Fatimata M’Baye explained. She put the price of a slave as about the same as that of a camel.
Many slave families have been with the families of their masters for generations, and are connected to them with complex emotional and economic ties.
Freed slaves often continue to work for their former owners as paid servants, fearing to venture out to look for a living in urban slums, observers said.
Some slaves, however, attempt to break free at any cost. One of them was Matalla, a man about 20 years old, whose case has been uncovered by SOS Esclaves.
Several reliable sources confirmed that his three sisters were all kept as slaves in Lemghaity close to the northern border. Matalla escaped and sought refuge with the army, but SOS Esclaves fears he could be handed back to his masters.
Matalla was afraid that his owners would torture him as punishment, the association said.
”I prefer to die in your presence,” Matalla told soldiers. ”At least you will give me a proper burial, something my masters would not do.” – Sapa-DPA