Beyond Survival

Freed From Slavery and Terror, Mauritanians Fight for Those Left Behind

In the United States, for instance, Mauritanian anti-slavery activists intensified their efforts after the former slave's speaking tour of the Northeast. The talks, which were co-sponsored by the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group and an underground Mauritanian abolitionist movement called SOS Slaves, were led by Nasser Yessa, who grew up in a slave-owning family. "Every day, for the first 16 years of my life, slaves prepared my meals, cleaned my clothes, washed my hands, and massaged my back," he has said. "Though we were both Muslims, my slaves and I understood that their black skin made them impure—and that they had to serve me faithfully."

In Manhattan, Fulani and Harateen émigrés sent an open letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on January 28 pleading their cause; that same day, they gathered before the United Nations to protest the recent banning of a Mauritanian anti-slavery opposition party, Action for Change. "Silence from the African nations, from the UN, and the United States has not only encouraged Taya to continue his crooked policies, but has made him eager to increase his appetite for abuses and violations of human rights," said Moctar Teyeb, the former slave and national El Hor coordinator, in an address during the demonstration. "Why has Taya banned this anti-slavery party now? Taya thinks the world is busy with its war against terrorism."

Mauritanian activist Habsa Sileymane: "We are all working for the respect of human rights in our country."
photo: Pak Fung Wong
Mauritanian activist Habsa Sileymane: "We are all working for the respect of human rights in our country."

Later, in his Bronx apartment, Teyeb, who has testified before Congress on slavery in Mauritania, further explained how the U.S.-led war on terrorism was having a detrimental effect on his cause. "One week after September 11, unfortunately, President Bush sent a letter to Taya, referring to him as his friend, and so the following week, Taya went around the country on a propaganda tour, reading from the letter, saying that he is close to the United States, and that the United States was with him."

In a typed statement to the Voice, the Mauritanian embassy in Washington defended the banning of Action for Change, accusing the party's leadership of "anti-constitutional behavior" and "making racist anti-democratic statements aiming at dividing Mauritanians and jeopardizing our national unity." The statement continues: "In order to build a democratic republic, a country needs respect for the State and for its institutions. . . . This party has crossed the line, by transforming the [parliament] into a platform to circulate untruths on slavery and re-open old wounds."

On the matter of modern-day slavery, the statement goes on to explain that "our government recognizes that there are still some unfortunate vestiges and consequences of slavery in Mauritania; we are even more determined and committed to eradicate them by concerted and determined action to fight poverty among the poorest social groups." It also states: "Unfortunately certain persons in Mauritania and a small number of Mauritanian immigrants abroad who, in order to advance their political agenda or extend their stay in the host country, decided to use these baseless accusations of slavery and hurt their country."

However, many observers say Mauritania so far has a poor record combating slavery. "If there are only 'unfortunate vestiges and consequences of slavery' left in Mauritania, if the Action for Change party is truly circulating 'untruths' on slavery, then a comprehensive and independent multinational investigation into slavery in Mauritania will prove the government correct," says David Moore, an activist with the American Anti-Slavery Group. "But if there is nothing to hide, then why does the government continue to stifle dissent, ban political parties, and refuse to let foreign journalists freely roam the country?"

According to a 1996 U.S. congressional resolution, "Chattel slavery, with an estimated tens of thousands of black Mauritanians considered property of their masters and performing unpaid labor, persists despite its legal abolition in 1980." Moreover, anti-slavery activists, both here and in Africa, point out that there are no real legal mechanisms to enforce the Mauritanian anti-slavery law, and that the only people who are granted any right to compensation are the masters, not the slaves.

Still, Isselmou, the former slave living in Brooklyn, is optimistic. "I did not come to the United States just to sit here," he says. "I want to go back to my country to live with my family when I can live a safe life, my own life. The most important thing for any man is the life of freedom."

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