- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

DAKAR, Senegal — Antislavery activists in Mauritania are waging a rare public campaign to rescue Matalla, a 20-year-old camel herder they say fled into the protection of troops to escape a life of bondage.

His accused owners already have tried to get him back from soldiers patrolling Mauritania’s northern desert, the activists charge. They quoted the troops as saying the frightened young man came to them on Jan. 12, saying, “I’d rather you kill me, because at least you would bury me properly.”

The story unfolding this week in the remote north is difficult to verify firsthand — Mauritania is hard to enter and its officials are saying little.

But the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and human rights groups say slavery persists in Africa’s north and west. The Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group says more than 200,000 people labor as chattel slaves in Mauritania, Niger and Sudan, all nations on centuries-old Arab-African Saharan trade routes.

Chattel slaves are born into bondage and, like Matalla, have no family name.

Slavery was made a crime in Mauritania in 1981, and in Niger in 2003. Authorities there insist that it no longer exists and that those claiming to be slaves actually are free. Ex-slaves, sympathizers and rights agencies say otherwise.

“You have slavery here like you have sand — but the sand is visible. Slavery isn’t,” said Boubacar Messaoud, an ex-slave who is with Mauritania’s SOS Esclave antislavery movement.

“Certainly slavery exists in Mauritania and is found in all ethnic groups,” Cheikh Saad Bouh Kamara, a U.N. consultant on slavery, said by telephone from Paris. “They are not chained, or sold, but the men and the women are considered as the property of their masters.”

Mr. Kamara and Mr. Messaoud both were jailed by Mauritania’s government in 1998 for discussing slavery with foreign reporters. Their remarks, the government said at the time, “misrepresent the true social relations in Mauritania.”

The antislavery activists say they have blitzed government offices and international press outlets with faxes, phone calls and personal visits appealing for the protection of Matalla’s newfound freedom.

“We do what we can, but we’re not recognized by the government, so it’s dangerous,” said Mr. Messaoud. “The government denies that slavery exists; we want to show it does. That’s all we’re interested in doing.”

But in repeated calls to the prime minister’s office, Interior and Communications Ministries and security forces, officials refused to speak on the record about Matalla’s case.

“This is completely false. Slavery is not practiced in our nation,” said a spokesman for a top official, the only one to comment. “This is inconceivable.”

On rare occasions, senior Mauritanians say slavery exists, but insist it is dying out.

“What hasn’t happened is a total eradication” of slavery, a top opposition politician, Ahmed Ould Daddah, said in an interview ahead of nationwide November elections.

“We’ve advanced a lot, things have changed very much here,” Mohamed Ould Bellal, a high-ranking official of Mauritania’s long-ruling party, said last week. “Slavery … is outlawed by both Islamic and public law. There’s no slavery or trade in people.”

He denied any knowledge of Matalla’s predicament, but said, “We have a plan to prevent any isolated cases of those who are still attached to the old practices.”

Yacoub Ould Saloum Val, a state mining engineer and an antislavery activist, said Matalla encountered a passing military patrol as he followed his owners’ camels in the Sahara near the Moroccan border.

Mr. Saloum Val, contacted by phone from neighboring Senegal, said he was allowed to talk briefly with the herdsman on Jan. 18 in the northern city of Zouirat, where military police were protecting him.

In the desert, Matalla had thrown himself on the mercy of the soldiers, telling troops his owners had threatened to kill him after a brother ran away, Mr. Saloum Val said, quoting the security forces who worked with the young man.

Matalla’s mother, three sisters and seven brothers remain trapped in harsh slavery, Mr. Saloum Val said.

Soldiers initially told Matalla they could do nothing, but also rebuffed a man who showed up identifying himself as Matalla’s master and demanding him back.

On Jan. 20, Matalla moved about 400 miles north with security forces into the region of his birth village of Lemghaity, Mr. Saloum Val and Mr. Messaoud said.

Antislavery activists said Matalla remained there with free relatives as recently as Sunday, but think he is under police surveillance and are concerned that his supposed masters will reclaim him.

“We fear that since he’s in that zone, his masters may find him,” said Mr. Messaoud. “We don’t know why the authorities sent him back there.”

Mauritania is a nation of 3 million whose black Africans are dominated by white Moorish inhabitants — Arab and Moroccan Berber conquerors dating back to the third century.

It officially abolished slavery in the 1960s and criminalized it in 1981 after being embarrassed by a wave of demonstrations over the public sale of a woman in a market.

The government responsible for the ban was overthrown in 1984, and its successor suppresses public debates on and investigations into slavery, said the Geneva-based U.N. working group on slavery.

Mr. Messaoud and other antislavery activists say both black and Arab-Africans keep slaves, justifying it by an incorrect reading of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

Compounding the problem, activists say, is Mauritania’s poverty — so great that even those who escape to freedom might not find food, shelter and jobs.

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