Nearly every day, Mohamedou Ould Isselmou, a 37-year-old Mauritanian living in New York, leaves his fourth-floor Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment at noon and heads for a nearby halal café, where he works, often until past midnight. On some days, like today, the sky is gray, cold, and rainy, and Isselmou will tighten his hood as he rushes past a derelict lot opposite his building, past a large industrial pipe pouring clouds of steam onto the street, past a rundown corner liquor store. But no matter how dreary the trip, and no matter how long or tedious his working hours, he says he rarely loses grasp of the one reality that keeps him tethered to this city: He is living the life of a free man. Back in his West African homeland, he still would be a slave.
When Isselmou recalls his days in Mauritania and the life of forced servitude, he remains soft-spoken and deliberate. “In Mauritania, if a master were to tie you up and beat you until you died, it would not be a problem for him,” he said one morning in his small apartment, his voice swooping through his English vowels as if tracing the Arabic calligraphy many Mauritanians adopted centuries ago. “Many times, my master tied me up and beat me.”
Isselmou’s personal history may sound striking, but like a number of other former Mauritanian asylum seekers in New York, he is resistant to dwelling on his experiences. What he’d rather discuss is El Hor, or the Free, an underground Mauritanian abolitionist movement founded in 1974, with branches that stretch from Africa to Europe to North America.
Last month, El Hor went into high gear in New York when it teamed up with other Mauritanian groups to protest slavery and other civil rights abuses. That protest, in part, was galvanized by a short U.S. talking tour featuring a Mauritanian slave and a master that ended in Manhattan last month. Over the past several years, the Mauritanian exile community here has evolved from a group of disparately placed immigrants and refugees into a collective force for political change. No longer content with simply struggling to survive, they’re taking on the highest powers in the land, from their former masters to the American president and the chieftains at the UN.
For the roughly 3000 Mauritanians in the States—a thousand of them in New York alone—this political awakening has been decades in the making. Isselmou says he has been involved with El Hor since he was seven years old. “I had no choice,” he explains, when asked why he joined. “I realized that there is no reason why a man should be a slave of another man.”
On the map of Africa, Mauritania appears as a large, angular republic situated in the continent’s northwest, with a substantial coast on the Atlantic. Mauritania became independent from French rule only in 1960. Like its politics, its borders display the stamp of colonialism. Long straight lines, bearing little relation to topography or ethnic groupings, cut down from Algeria and Western Sahara. Mauritania’s eastern frontier with Mali may well have been drawn with one massive tape measure.
Within those borders, though, things are much less orderly. In 1984, Maaouya Ould Sidi Ahmad Taya seized Mauritania’s leadership during a bloodless coup and installed a repressive regime. Beginning with Taya’s rule, the Moorish-dominated government initiated a campaign of ethnic and racial cleansing that continues to this day, according to international human rights groups. Although this campaign targeted Black Africans living in Mauritania’s south, it primarily focused on the Fulani, an ethnic group driven by the tens of thousands into neighboring Senegal.
However, the most abused group in Mauritania may be one that has no real ethnicity: the slave caste of Africans known as the Harateen, who to this day must serve their Moorish masters, and who have done this for so many centuries that they no longer can trace their ancestry, according to Moctar Teyeb, a Harateen who now lives and works in the Bronx, where he runs the top U.S. branch of El Hor. Based on 1994 Mauritanian census figures, Teyeb says, 49 percent of the country’s 2.4 million people are either slaves or former slaves.
The practice of slavery in West Africa dates back hundreds of years, and has become deeply woven into Mauritanian customs and religious beliefs. Nearly all Mauritanians are Muslim, and activists such as Teyeb and Isselmou say twisted notions of Islamic scripture have been used to buttress slavery in their homeland for centuries. “Some of my family said I shouldn’t go to America,” said Isselmou. “They said I should obey my master, my religion, and accept the situation.”
Isselmou’s small stretch of Brooklyn, between Bedford and Nostrand, is where he has enjoyed a good deal of his freedom since he came to this city two years ago. This neighborhood may be the closest New York has to a Little Mauritania. In addition to the small community of Harateen, the area is also home to a number of Fulani exiles, many of whom also say they are fleeing persecution.
This sense of community may mark something of a change. Both the Fulani and Harateen say they have suffered extensively at the hands of the Moors, but have only recently begun to work together. According to some activists, Mauritania’s masters kept the two groups separate in a cynical game of “divide and rule.” They cite, for example, instances of slaves or former slaves in the north who were directed to participate in Fulani deportations. But the divisions this policy created are now beginning to drop away, said Habsa Sileymane, a Mauritanian human rights activist living in New York, as more and more black Mauritanian exiles focus on the Taya regime as the root of their country’s problems. “We are all working for the respect of human rights in our country; this is what brings us together,” Sileymane said over a sweet Senegalese ginger drink at the midtown café that serves as an occasional Mauritanian community center.
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.”
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.”