“Chains are for the slave who has just become a slave, who has … just been brought across the Atlantic,” Boubacar said. “But the multigeneration slave, the slave descending from many generations, he is a slave even in his own head. And he is totally submissive. He is ready to sacrifice himself, even, for his master. And, unfortunately, it’s this type of slavery that we have today” — the slavery “American plantation owners dreamed of.” (Slavery’s Last Stronghold/CNN)
CHICAGO, March 19, 2012— Most people do not know where the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is. Some confuse it with Mauritius, an Island off the coast of East Africa.
Mauritania is a Saharan nation located in West Africa. Except for a moderate coastal area, the country is vast open Saharan desert.
Mauritania wasn’t on anyone’s radar, except for Al Queda cells using the unpopulated and isolated desert to hide in.
CNN changed that with their multi-media story Slavery’s Last Stronghold. CNN was not the first to report on slavery in Mauritania. Stories have circulated for years through institutional media, alternate media, and human rights groups.
CNN’s story was a powerful combination of written, photographic, and video images. This powerful combination gave it impact others lacked. The story was eleven months in the making.
According to CNN research, 10-20%- 340 thousand to 680 thousand- of the population lives in slavery. Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, the last nation to do so. In 2007 slavery was made a criminal offense. Slavery was ended on paper not in practice. It still thrives, just as it has for thousands of years.
Slavery is part of the social, economic, religious, political, geographic, educational, hereditary, and racial fabric of Mauritania. It is part of the nation’s DNA.
People are routinely arrested for fighting illegal slavery by a government that denies its very existence. Only one slave owner has been prosecuted and that was not done willingly.
The CNN story provides a plethora of information about the vast isolated desert nation. It is loaded with facts and figures gleaned from various sources. There is more information about Mauritania than most people ever want to know.
The country’s vast open desert and isolation make it easy for Mauritania to keep slavery an open secret and the rest of the world to ignore it. Everyone knows it exists, the government does not admit it, and finding slaves and slave owners is difficult.
Open discussion of slavery is not permitted in Mauritania. CNN claims most of their interviews were made covertly. Journalists who attempt to report on slavery are jailed and/or thrown out of the country. Local activists are subject to arrest and torture. Human rights workers investigating slavery do it under false covers, impersonating environmentalists, geologists, or other groups.
CNN used the ruse of investigating locust swarms to enter the country. Their in country environmental contacts were never made aware the real purpose of their visit.
Unlike like other forms slavery, where people are bought and sold on the open market, most Mauritanian slaves are born into slavery. Slavery is hereditary and multi-generational. Slaves, and former slaves, are a separate caste of people. This creates a slave mentality making the very concept of freedom and transition from slave to freedom psychologically difficult and sometimes impossible.
Besides the incredible reportage the piece is visually stunning. The photographs and video are extraordinary in their power and beauty.
The fact that slavery, especially multigenerational slavery, still exists is appalling. Worse is Mauritania’s refusal to acknowledge it, enforce laws against it, and refusal to even admit it exists.
Human trafficking of slaves and sex workers is the glamorous, sexy, and high profile media story de jour. Major media reports, celebrities and activists advocate and raise awareness and money.
The hereditary and multi-generational slavery of Mauritania has been mostly ignored. As long as the country says it does not exist, well, it doesn’t. Slavery? What slavery?
It does not appear anyone, including the United States, is doing anything, except giving lip service, to pressure Mauritania to crack down on and put an end to slavery.
Mauritania is not being publicly internationally condemned or shamed for ignoring slavery and refusing to prosecute it. There are no vast social media campaigns or movements to force governments to intervene. There is no international movement to impose sanctions, boycotts of natural resources, or ending any and all economic foreign aid to the country.
There is only namby-pamby lip service. People who are supposed to be experts claim education is the key. The government of Mauritania should educate its people that slavery is illegal. Mauritania won’t do that. They do not acknowledge slavery exists.
Mauritania should be continuously shamed on the international stage. Demands for the suspension of all foreign aid should be made. Foreign aid should be cut off until they proactively take determined measures to end slavery in practice instead of merely on paper and prove it.
Mauritania should be forced to allow human rights workers and activists to operate freely; report on conditions, and the government should take prosecutorial action on reports of slave owners.
Mauritania should be considered and treated like a rogue nation until it complies. But, from all appearances that will not happen. Mauritania is not on anyone’s radar. Mauritania is a country that lives with little or no publicity. It is the place no one knows about or wants to know about.
Mauritania likes it that way.
Peter V. Bella is a retired Chicago Police Officer, freelance writer and photographer, cook, and raconteur. He likes to be the sharp stick that pokes, prods, and annoys. His opinions are his and his alone.
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