- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

Mauritanian Ambassador Mohamedu Ould Michel pledged yesterday that a 20-year-old camel herder whose flight from bondage set anti-slavery activists on a rescue campaign would under no circumstances be returned to his former owners.

“He will not at all be put back into servitude,” Mr. Michel told editors and reporters at a luncheon at The Washington Times.

The young man, referred to only as Matalla, fled to the protection of Mauritanian troops and told them he would prefer death to a return to servitude, according to an Associated Press article published in The Times on Feb. 12.

“I’d rather you kill me, because at least you would bury me properly,” he was quoted as telling the troops.

The soldiers reportedly told the man they could do nothing for him, but they rebuffed a man who identified himself as Matalla’s owner and said he had come to reclaim him.

The Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group charged there are more than 200,000 people like Matalla who labor as chattel slaves across the Sahel region of Africa, stretching from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east.

The region is a transition zone where Arabs and Berbers run up against the black-majority nations of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Mauritania is trying with all its means to eradicate the vestiges of slavery,” Ambassador Michel declared.

Slavery was legally abolished in Mauritania in 1981 and criminal sanctions for the practice were passed last year.

Slavery is “the legacy we have to deal with,” Mr. Michel said. “My president, my government are dealing with that history.”

“We are an African society, also a Muslim society peopled by Arabs, Berbers and blacks,” he emphasized.

“We have passed through feudalism and we were colonized from abroad. Now we are working to modernize our institutions,” he said.

Traditionally people in servitude to the ruling Moors were called haratines. The term meant “black Moors,” used in contrast to the ruling aristocrats, known as bedaye, or “white Moors.” Currently haratine is used to describe black and nonblack people of slave origin.

Mauritania, one of Africa’s largest nations, is about three times the size of Arizona but has only about 2.7 million people as much of the country lies in the vast Sahara.

Like its neighbors in the Sahara belt, it suffers from the ravages of drought and desertification.

It gained independence from France in 1960, annexed the adjacent Spanish Sahara in 1976, but yielded the land three years later in the face of pressure from Polisario guerrillas and competing claims from Morocco.

In 1995 it steered its foreign policy toward closer relations with the United States and Europe. In 1999 it recognized Israel, becoming only the third nation of the 22-member Arab League to do so.

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