Freed Slaves Fight Back

In 2011, Yargue and Saïd, two children enslaved since birth, dared to break the silence by taking their former masters to court. The story of a fight for freedom.

Saïd is bright-eyed, as determined as a boxer about to enter the ring. Head held high, the gangly 16-year-old confidently strides across the court room. His baby-faced younger brother, Yargue, 13, follows closely on his heels. The two brothers sit down next to one another in the first row, in silence. 

The fear their masters once instilled in them disappeared a long time ago. At the trial in 2011, the charged slave-owners - seven in total - all denied knowing them. When they took the stand, the children did not allow themselves to be rattled by this. In turn, they listed the names of their tormentors by pointing at them. Five years on, they remained vehement. As the defendants took their place in the dock, the boys stood ramrod straight, stony-faced, poised for the fight. That was 24 November 2016.

For a week, the eldest brother had thought of nothing but the verdict. Waking at dawn, Saïd splashed a little water on his face before donning his best shirt. Outside, it was already hot. Nouakchott, the dusty capital of Mauritania, is stifling in November. The streets of Péka, a poor neighbourhood located on the outskirts of the city, were deserted. Only a few goats wandered among the old buildings.

Squatting in the courtyard of his house, a modest stone hut built on the sand, his dark eyes staring vacantly, his features drawn downwards, the young man mechanically wet his lips with his still scalding glass of mint tea. His cheeks, more hollowed than usual with tiredness, accentuated the thinness of his face. 

“Did you sleep well?” I asked, sitting down next to him.

“I didn’t sleep a wink. My mind was just racing,” he replied, putting a handful of dried leaves to brew on an old camping stove. 

Saïd is one of the few former slaves who agreed to talk to me. In this West African country, the code of silence surrounding slavery is such that, even once liberated, most freed slaves stay silent, fearing that they will be imprisoned if they come forward and testify. Although the teenager seemed slightly timid at first, as the weeks went on, we finally established real trust. “I was born under a tree, I had no papers, and I didn’t even know my name,” he told me. “When they called me ‘slave’, that made me happy, I thought it was written by God, that it was normal.” He was quiet for a moment, looked upwards, then added fiercely, “I was in the dark, but now I’m out of it.”

The son of a slave, his future was mapped out even before he was born. Like thousands of Mauritanians, he and his younger brother were born captive. Although abolished in 1981, descent-based slavery (in which the child of a slave ‘inherits’ their condition), it still exists in the country. Many Haratines (descendants of freed black African slaves, around 40% of the population) retain the status of slave and, as such, are still considered inferior to their masters, who come from the Moorish community (descendants of the Arab-Berber conquerors, 30% of the population).

Like their mother, Yargue and Saïd belonged to the Houceines, a Moorish family making a living mainly from livestock farming. At the age of five, the eldest brother was taken from his mother and separated from his brother. Offered as a worker to one of the Houceines’ sons, Ahmed, and his wife, Saïd grew up somewhere in the middle of the Sahara. Forbidden from going to school, the young boy looked after his masters’ camels and travelled several miles every day across the vast expanse of sand to take the herd to a waterhole. By the time he returned to the encampment, night had fallen, usually hours earlier. As he was not allowed to enter the family tent, he spent the nights curled up alone under a tree, suffering in silence. A life of slavery leaves little room for being carefree. Saïd, however, snatched the briefest moments of happiness he could, like when his masters left him alone at the encampment. ‘I made the most of them being away, and had fun playing with their children’s toys,’ he said, with a smile. He knew that if he was caught, the punishment would be horrific – the Houceines did not hesitate to beat him, sometimes until he bled. But even so, the temptation was too great for the young slave who had never owned anything in his life.

After yet another particularly brutal punishment, Saïd, who had just turned 11, decided to run away. One morning, he left the encampment at dawn and walked to the neighbouring village where his aunt Selma took him in. “I told her that I was really tired of this life and I wanted to go to school like the other children.” Powerless, she advised him to ask Biram Dah Abeid for help. “Biram!” he remembers shouting. How could his aunt want him to ask that monster for help? His masters had warned him repeatedly about Biram, telling tales of how he emerged from the dunes and carried away any children who had the misfortune to cross his path.

A true icon of the fight against slavery in Mauritania, the founder and president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) tracks down slave owners all over the country, and has been attracting much attention in recent years. Biram Dah Abeid, himself a descendent of a slave, owes this fight to a promise made to his father. “When I was still just a child, I swore to him that one day I would free all the slaves in our country,” he told me during his visit to Paris a few weeks before my departure.

The charismatic 52-year-old man with a gentle but piercing look was tireless when it came to addressing the issue of slavery in his country. “Although slaves are no longer held in irons, their lack of education still keeps them in chains. They are convinced that paradise is found under the feet of their masters, who they blindly obey. Unable to read or write, they’re at the mercy of people who don’t hesitate to use religion to assert their superiority.” With this in mind, and as a symbolic gesture, in 2012 the abolitionist leader publicly burned several works of Maliki rites which, in his eyes, advocate and justify slavery. Maliki is a theological, moral and legal Islamic school stemming from the teachings of Malik ibn Anas. Based on the Quran and the Sunnah, it is dominant in the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and Upper Egypt. He spent several months behind bars for the crime of apostasy, before he was finally released.

His action would eventually extend beyond the borders of Mauritania, earning him the United Nations Human Rights Prize in 2013 for his flight against slavery. But all of this has its disadvantages. This fierce battle fuelled the hatred of the slave-owners. Sometimes described as a terrorist, sometimes depicted as a bloodthirsty monster, Biram Dah Abeid slowly creeps into the nightmares of the young slaves, who are terrified at the very mention of his name. 

After careful consideration, Saïd finally gathered up his courage and agreed to ask the bogey-man for help. “I knew that if I didn’t do something, my masters would eventually find me and take me back to their encampment.”

A few days later, Biram came to visit Saïd at his aunt’s house. As soon as he saw him, the little boy’s fears immediately melted away. “He had a gentle voice and a smiling face, it was hard to imagine that such a nice man could steal children!” The activist asked him three questions:

“Do you get rest and care? Do you go to school? Are you paid?” To each question, the answer was the same: “No”. After listening attentively to his story, the IRA president promised he would be back, and sent his men to rescue Saïd’s little brother who was being held captive a few miles away by another member of the Houceine family. While waiting for him to return, he ordered the boy to stay hidden at his aunts and not to go out unless he had to. The boy, trusting, obeyed.

A few days later, the activist returned to collect the two brothers, reunited at last, and took them to the capital to file a lawsuit for slavery. There ensued a standoff between the police, who refused to register the crime, and the anti-slavery activists. Biram Dah Abeid, did not let it drop. For him, seeing the case hushed up was not an option. He organised a sit-in, in front of the Nouakchott police station. After nine days, the complaint was finally registered and seven members of the Houceine family were charged with slavery-like practices against minors. In November 2011, at the trial, Ahmed Houceine was sentenced to imprisonment; the rest of his family received suspended sentences. These penalties were well below what is stated by law: five to ten years for those found guilty of slavery-like practices. Yargue and Saïd’s mother, although a slave herself, was also sentenced to two years imprisonment with a suspended sentence, for being an accomplice to slavery. 

After barely four months behind bars, Ahmed Houceine was released on bail. Determined to enforce the law, the IRA appealed. Five years later, the time has come to hear the decision.

It is ten o’clock in the morning. A battered car pulls up on the strip of land that skirts the neighbourhood of Péka, and beeps the horn a couple of times. It’s time to leave. Saïd gulps down his final glass of tea and calls out to his brother, who rushes into the courtyard, hurriedly buttoning up his shirt. He also looks like her hardly slept last night, and his face looks crumpled. As the trial is public, I decide to accompany the children. So as not to draw attention to myself, and enter the court without a hitch, I quickly wrap a scarf around my hair like the Haratines do. The subject of slavery is still extremely sensitive in Mauritania and if I want to be able to pursue my research freely, it is best for me to be as discreet as possible. Yargue, usually so reserved, bursts out laughing when he sees my hair done like that. “You’re a real Mauritanian now!” My outfit seems convincing. We’re ready to go.

Two activists who will accompany us are already waiting in the car. Once we have all piled into the rust bucket, it sets off down the uneven line of tarmac leading to the city centre. The Law Courts are a few miles away, almost an hour’s drive. With his face half squashed against the dusty car window, Saïd watches the city rolling past before his eyes. The yellow sand stretching away out of sight gives the landscape a monochrome appearance. “When I lived in the masters’ encampment, I sometimes wouldn’t see anyone for months. When I arrived in Nouakchott, I was terrified, I slept all day,” says the boy. Although the capital and its million inhabitants seemed awful to him then, he feels at home there now, and gets excited when we pass the used car market. The place where old wrecks, mainly sent there from European countries, find a new lease of life. We pass donkey-drivers, their skin leathery from the sun, travelling up and down the burning tarmac, carrying water to the poor neighbourhoods. Poverty is evident, even in the rundown facades of the buildings.

Our taxi finally pulls up in front of a large stone block of a building, where other activists are already waiting for us. The Law Courts are surrounded by guards and I have to blend into the crowd to make my way inside. My heart is hammering inside my chest; I am afraid they’ll see through my disguise and deny me access. Being in contact with members of the IRA is not tolerated by the Mauritanian authorities, it would be hard to justify my being there with them without comprising my investigation. Fortunately, my dark complexion and local dress help me to go unnoticed and get inside without any problems.

There is a solemn atmosphere in the courtroom. Around fifty people, most from the same tribe as the accused, take their seats on the public benches. To the right are the men, dressed in blue or white drâas (traditional outfits also known as Moorish boubous). To the left, the women, swathed in colourful fabrics (melhefas). I take a seat next to them, as men and women are not permitted to mix. In the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, religion plays a central role: Nouakchott has several hundred mosques. Suddenly, the voice of one of the judges is heard reciting a verse from the Quran in Arabic, as tradition dictates: “When you judge between men, you judge with justice”. The audience stands up as a sign of respect, then sits down again. The appeal judgement can begin. 

Less than three minutes later, they give the verdict, identical to that of the first trial: only Ahmed, the eldest brother of the Houceine family, is sentenced. Two years in prison for slavery-like practices involving minors, and denying access to schooling. Handcuffed, the towering figure of a man, dressed in a white boubou, is led to the back of the court. He keeps his head down, does not look at the boys. Then suddenly the room empties out and we find ourselves outside once more, under a blazing sun. Yargue and Saïd, still shocked by the sentence, say nothing. 

Since the promulgation of the law criminalising slavery in 2007, they are the first to obtain a conviction for their former masters. Although the trial is certainly a step in the right direction, the sentence imposed is still well below the punishments provided for by law.

In the square in front of the Law Courts, the boys’ lawyer, Bah, is cheered by the supporters who have come to thank him, one by one, for putting up such a good fight. As he wipes his round glasses on his suit, he is steely-faced. He does not intend to stop there. “We will lodge an appeal with regard to compensation. We asked for 20 million Mauritanian ouguiyas (around 53,500 CHF) but the children only received 3 million (around 8,000 CHF). It’s a lot less than the legislative code stipulates. This is not just a simple traffic accident, what we are talking about here is a crime against humanity. The sentence should reflect that, and it does not”. According to the lawyer, this failure to apply the law provokes a strong feeling of injustice and gives slave-owners free rein to carry on exploiting other Mauritanians with impunity.

Although slavery was elevated to the status of a crime against humanity in 2012, the government led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (who came to power by a coup in 2008) insists on denying the extent of this scourge on his country. Despite advances in legislation, most cases are covered up by the authorities and many victims have had to give up on legal action against their former masters. 

Far from being fooled, human rights activists see the anti-slavery laws as a vulgar smokescreen and accuse the government of muzzling those who fight against this practice. “In Mauritania, slave-owners are present even in the highest echelons of the government and justice system. Those who decide to fight them must expect to suffer a lot,” explains Biram Dah Abeid. In August 2016, 13 members of the IRA were arrested and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Two of them, Moussa Bilal Biram and Abdallahi Matallah Seck, show clear evidence of torture.

In the absence of a home for the freed slaves, Yargue and Saïd live with the abolitionist leader where they share the daily lives of other former slaves like Moctar, aged 17. The teenager with a mischievous glint in his eye and a charming smile has been living here for two years. When he ran away from his masters, his mother, herself a slave, cut all ties with him for fear that she would be cursed. Today, having the other boys there is helping him to rebuild his life. It’s a difficult path for the young man, who bears the scars of his past life. “One day, I refused to obey my master. He got angry and threw boiling water from the kettle onto my stomach. He watched me suffer and told me that he held all rights over me, even the right to kill me,” he recalls, showing me the numerous scars left by the burns, and the white streaks across his ebony skin from where was beaten with a stick.

When Biram is away on tour to raise awareness about slavery in Europe, it is his wife, Leila, aged 30, who takes on the role of head of the house: a demanding task for a young woman who is expecting her fifth child. Her sparkling eyes and full lips give her face a doll-like appearance. Although always cheerful, the deep bags under her eyes reveal her tiredness. In order to lighten her load, everyone lends a hand. While some help prepare the meal, the older ones help the younger ones with their homework. Since being freed, the two brothers have finally made it into education, a dream they thought was inaccessible. Yargue thought that at the age of 13, it would be too late to catch up. Today, he is top of his class.

The modest household struggles to accommodate all these young people, and some, due to lack of space, sleep in the corridors at night. It is not the height of luxury, but the children feel at home. In the evenings, the whole gang gather in front of the little television set. Tonight, the football is on. “I support Barcelona, they’re the best,” exclaims Saïd who, for the occasion, is dressed in a football shirt in his team’s colours. With the trial over, he has regained his openness, and never stops smiling. “Today, I’m discovering a new world where I am free to think and say what I want. Before, I had no rights, only duties,” he says, plunging his hand into a still-steaming dish of couscous that has just been served up.

In April 2017, I decide to go back to Mauritania to continue my research into slavery and catch up with the children. Although we are very pleased to be meeting up again, I have to limit my visits. The tension has been dialled up since my first visit. In a few weeks, Biram Dah Abeid will return from his European tour. His return coincides with the announcement of a referendum that could enable Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to stand for a third presidential term. The police, fearing that the reappearance of the IRA leader will lead to disturbances, have increased their surveillance of members of the movement. For several days now, men have been prowling around his house, watching the comings and goings. Activists are not the only ones under pressure. When I arrive, I meet Marie Foray, a French lawyer, with whom I had the chance to investigate during my previous trip. This thirty-year-old, usually so jovial, is wary. For some time, she has been constantly summoned to various police stations and questioned about her reasons for being in the country. A climate of paranoia gradually sets in. So, I decide to keep a low profile for a few days. In vain.

On 28 April, Marie and I are summoned to appear before the Directorate-General of National Security. Aware that this summons does not bode well, we reluctantly jump into the first taxi we can find. It drops us off in front of a building several dozens of metres high and flanked by armed soldiers, a stone’s throw from the city centre. After confiscating our mobile phones, one of the soldiers escorts us to the office of General Mohamed Ould Meguett.

The door is open, the blinds pulled down even though it is still early. A single bulb hanging from the ceiling illuminates the room with a pale glow. A stiff-looking, stocky little man emerges from the shadows and beckons us in. The greeting is brief. From the outset, Mohamed Ould Meguett lays his cards on the table: “We know that you’ve met with members of the IRA and done interviews. All these people have told you are lies. Slavery does not exist in Mauritania!” he says, looking us straight in the eye. Taken aback, I immediately reply, “If slavery doesn’t exist, then what about the victims we met?”

His chubby face turns scarlet and he yells, “The people you met are theatre actors paid by the IRA!” Without giving us time to reply, he adds furiously, “You are no longer welcome in Mauritania. You will leave on the next plane home.” We attempt a final push: “Why promulgate laws criminalising slavery if it doesn’t exist? What would the activists have to gain by lying to us? Why are you driving us out of the country?” Our questions will never be answered; the general has made his decision. Dialogue is impossible.

In the end, he agrees to give us four days, enough time to find a plane ticket at an affordable price. But he gives us a clear warning: “If you do not leave Mauritania by that time, you will be immediately imprisoned.” As we leave his office, he gives us one final warning: “Remember, we are watching you.”

The news of our expulsion came as a real blow to the children. We knew that the subject was still taboo in Mauritania, but we still thought, naively, that our European passports would protect us from such stumbling blocks. Having only seen Yargue and Saïd again for such a brief time, our goodbye was hard. We had established a real rapport, and this drastic separation was really heart-breaking, especially for them. At this last meeting, Saïd concluded bitterly, “Through you, the government is punishing us for speaking out.”

Translation: Charlotte Coombe