House of Bondage
Slavery is still alive and flourishing in Mauritania. Just ask the Haratin, many of whom continue to suffer in servitude.
THE MAURITANIAN GOVERNMENT DOESN’T WANT YOU to know that 10 to 20 percent of its people are enslaved. Officials don’t want you to think about how the West African country was the last to abolish slavery, in 1981, and didn’t criminalize the practice until just over a decade ago, in 2007. They don’t want you to imagine the conditions of the former slaves, known as Haratin, who now form Mauritania’s lowest caste, living in extreme poverty under a regime that denies them access to work, education and the basic rights that come along with citizenship.
And they certainly don’t want you to see it.
That’s why when Seif Kousmate, a photographer based in Morocco, set out to capture the everyday lives of the country’s Haratin people, Mauritanian authorities arrested, jailed and interrogated him. They released Kousmate four days later, returning his laptop and camera, but held on to multiple memory cards with photos he’d taken during the month he spent in Haratin villages, where tents and shanties dot the desert landscape.
Since the government denies any presence of slavery, there is no official data for how many slaves exist; numbers range from 340,000 to 680,000. “The government claims local activists invent these issues,” Kousmate says. “The fact that I had pictures and audio interviews of former slaves was a valid proof that it existed and still exists. That is why they considered my pictures a threat.”
Mauritanian activists and international humanitarian groups continue to sound alarm bells about the conditions, and the United Nations has proposed a number of steps the government could take to end the suffering. Kousmate hopes he can shed light on the human rights abuse with his portraits.
“The most important thing I felt needed to be captured is the suffering from their previous lives as slaves,” says Kousmate, “but also from the isolation and discrimination they continue to face.” Even when they are freed “their situation does not get much better.”
LIVING PROOF Mabrouka Mint Aichetou, 20, was taken from her mother (previous page) when she was a child. Released from slavery in 2011, she continues to suffer pain from burn scars inadequately treated by her former masters.