House of Bondage

Newsweek - - News - BY MARIE SO­LIS

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.

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