Suleika mint Barka, 10, missed her mother. She was removed to Nouakchott, the capital, in her master's custody, leaving the rest of her family at a Bedouin camp deep in the Mauritanian desert. From there the master drove the girl to a remote oasis and sold her to another Bedan (white) named Muhammad for the price of four camels. There was nothing anyone could do about it.
Suleika found that out the hard way. She feigned illness and was brought back to the capital for treatment. She fled the hospital and begged her old master to take her back so she could return to her family. He refused. Frantic, she found refuge with freed slaves. Muhammad tracked her down and had her arrested. At a court hearing, one the freed slaves argued that should be released. " I demanded to know whether there wasn't a law here that forbids slavery," he recalls. The judge jailed him and returned Suleika to the buyer, who promptly took her away to one of his own desert camps.
It could be a tale from the last century, when Great Britain led a campaign to force an unwilling world to relinquish timeless practices of human bondage once condoned by all the major religions. But Suleika was sold just last year. And hers is no isolated case. Britain's Anti-Slavery International, the world's oldest human-rights organization, claims that more than 100 million people around the world still suffer as slaves-a figure that includes an estimate for child labor. Even under narrower definitions embracing such forms as chattel slavery and debt bondage, a yearlong, four-continent NEWSWEEK investigation suggests that cases of involuntary servitude reach well into the millions.
Religion, tradition and economic necessity are still cornerstones of slavery, even though most Westerners think the issue was settled in the 19th century. In Mauritania alone, tens of thousands of Africans are held as property. The master decides when and whom they can marry and owns any children; when a slave dies, the master inherits any belongings. More common, though, is the slavery of debt bondage, which forces whole families to work, sometimes for generations, in vain efforts to pay off loans. Arranged marriages and fraudulent labor contracts can provide the veneer for forced servitude. And some of slavery's victims are simply abducted. Everywhere slavery is practiced, victims tell of beatings, rape, hunger and torture. But whatever form of coercion binds them, these workers can't quit. They don't have the most basic of human rights: the right not to be another's property.
On paper, slavery is dead. Governments have signed a series of abolitionist pledges dating from the League of Nations' Slavery Convention of 1926. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, binding on all members, holds: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms." But for 17 years, United Nations human-rights specialists have documented widespread and growing violations of the agreements. The reports of the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery fill filing cabinets in Geneva, but seldom go farther. And if the world doesn't pay attention, why should the accused governments be expected to change? For them, campaigning against slavery is a political waste. The exploited are always someone else, set apart by race, caste, religion, nationality or family. Those who profit from slave labor, on the other hand, usually have money and political clout. So instead of freeing slaves, governments simply pass laws they don't enforce.
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania finds it easier to lie about slavery than to abolish it. Successive regimes out, lawed slavery in 1905, at independence in 1960 and most recently in 1980. But they never passed any laws providing for punishment and never bothered to tell many of the slaves. The only thing that has ever freed slaves in Mauritania is drought; the masters could no longer feed them. Most of these so-called haratin now inhabit vast shanty-towns outside the capital, where a freedom movement has taken root. And some are freed because they can no longer work. "They used me up and threw me out, like the trash," said Oum el Barka mi 76, who lives by scrounging in trash piles and from scraps that her two sons--still slaves--get from her old master's table.
More than 100,000 descendants of Africans conquered by Arabs during the 12th century are still thought to be living as old-fashioned chattel slaves. Aside from the shanty-towns and a strip of land along the Senegal River, virtually all blacks are slaves, and they are more than half the population. Many have never even heard about the 1980 law. In Tidjikja, 15 hours by sandy track from the capital, two 10-yearold boys tending camels said they belong to Fahl Ould Saed Ahmed, who was standing not far away dickering with a potential camel purchaser. But Ahmed claimed: "There is no racism, there is no slavery."
In a nearby date plantation Dada Ould Mbarek also readily acknowledged being a slave, and named his master. "I am a slave, my whole family are slaves," said Mbarek, 25, a muscular man dressed only in underwear. "Sometimes they treat us well, sometimes they treat us badly, but only the children get beaten." He was asked: weren't Mauritania's slaves emancipated? " I never heard of it," he said. "And what's more, I don't believe it. Slaves free? Never here." Isn't he the same as his master? "No, I'm different. A master is a master and a slave is a slave. Masters are white, slaves are black." Is this just? "Naturally, we blacks should be the slaves of the whites."
Apologists for Mauritania say abolishing traditional practices takes time, and that at least slave sales have been outlawed. But Mbarek said he had been sold twice. His job: drawing water from a well all day and carrying it into small paddies to grow vegetables. His master lives in the capital and comes during the harvest to take the produce, leaving the slaves enough for their personal consumption. " He has many cars, and 15 slaves in all," Mbarek said.
Chattel Slavery never ended in Mauritania, but in the eastern Sahara it's actually making a comeback. In Sudan, once virtually rid of slavery, time has spun backward since rebel leader John Garang rallied the African tribes of the country's fertile south against the country's Muslim elite. The government counterinsurgency strategy has included arming the Arab tribespeople who live on the fault line between the Muslim north and the animist south. The result has been a resurgence of traditional raiding-including slave taking, human-rights groups charge.
In some other parts of the Arab world, "guest workers" now fill the role slaves used to-and often aren't treated much differently. For centuries the gulf sheikdoms bought slaves from Europe and Africa. Saudi Arabia banned slavery only in 1962. Now employment contracts and fake marriages hide practices that differ from slavery only in name. The slaves are Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and West Africans. Often they are not paid for their labor and kept locked up in the homes they serve. If they are not physically restrained, their passports are kept from them; they work whatever hours the masters decree. Many are routinely beaten to enforce obedience. "Hundreds of times they called me 'slave,' hundreds of times," says Laxmi Swami, an Indian housemaid who went to the police after escaping from her captors in London. Two sisters of the Emir of Kuwait kept her half-starved and behind bars for four years, flogging her daily with electrical cable, she says; they pleaded guilty to assault and paid civil damages of $540,000. More than a thousand such cases have been documented in England, most since the gulfwar; embassies in Kuwait are crowded with escapees from among the country's half-million menial "guest workers." "The whole country [Kuwait] was a jail," says one Filipino.
Traditional marriage practices can mask slavery just as effectively as job contracts. In South Africa, Mozambican women fleeing their country's civil war have found themselves easy prey for township men seeking concubines. There, unscrupulous "guides" sell refugee women for the traditional bride's price, justifying it as repayment for bringing them across the electrified fence separating the two countries.
Anna Timba, 26, says she was sold twice. The first time, a guide dropped her and her two children. off in the black township of Tembisa, outside Johannesburg. The buyer demanded sex and when she refused he locked her out of the house. She found her way back to the guide, who then sold her to another man for the equivalent of $165, she says. She says this buyer raped her on the first two nights, then began beating her almost daily because she continued to resist. After a beating that left her covered with bruises, she escaped to a nearby refugee camp-and complained to police. They arrested the guide and her second owner, but more than a year later neither has gone on trial.
In much of the world, those who trade in women don't even bother with the pretense of marriage. On the Indian-Bangladeshi border, the going rate for a Bangladeshi girl is six cows; promised jobs, the girls surface in the fetid red-light districts of Calcutta and Bombay. In Thailand, prostitution often disguises outright slavery. The nation's booming sex industry has traditionally preyed on women from Thailand's northern provinces, Myanmar and even Indochina. In some cases, families are proud of the woman's earning power. But demand has outstripped supply. The result has been an escalating number of abductions from neighboring countries. Shocked Chinese diplomats in Bangkok acknowledged for the first time last year that mainland women were being sold as virtual slaves; Thai authorities reported that hundreds, some as young as 12, had been lured into the sex trade. "I was frightened and cried endlessly," said Xiao Hua, who escaped from a Bangkok brothel and returned to China last year. "I kept thinking how good my parents had been to me."
Since abduction is a crime in every country, creating some risk for would-be slavers, it is far easier to drive workers into debt, then detain them until they pay it off. India and Pakistan have paid lip service to reform, but have hardly begun to fight the problems of debt bondage, a system in which a parent's debt can be passed on to the children. Some Latin American countries, accustomed to slave labor, have developed their own variations. In each case, the basic formula is simple: give an illiterate, desperate worker a job, then pay less than it takes to survive.
For centuries, Indian labor agents called jamadars have scoured remote provinces, promising good jobs to landless peasants, usually "untouchables" or tribals. They hand out bonuses to the families of those who agree to leave. Once on the job, the workers must borrow money for tools and food, and they fall into debt. Many owners falsify loan documents that the workers, often illiterate, can't understand. The Bonded Labor Liberation Front, which seeks to enforce a 1976 law abolishing the practice, has found workers slaving to pay off debts eight generations old that 5 million adults and 10 million children are still trapped. The debt slaves do the most grueling forms of labor, such as rock breaking. "Evidence of beating and torture is common," says Kailash Satyarthi, general secretary of the liberation front. "Some kids were even branded with red-hot irons."
Sadram and his wife, Devkumari, have worked in a stone quarry outside New Delhi for eight years, ever since they took out a loan for $46. Now the loan has grown to $88, and last year the couple made the mistake of complaining that they wanted to go home without paying it off. Four drunken accomplices of the jamadar broke into their mud-walled home after midnight, they say. The thugs beat the couple with iron bars, cracking Sadram's skull and breaking his nose. "After the beating my heart was broken," said Devkumari. When they recovered from their wounds, they returned to work. As untouchables, a pariah category under the caste system, they had no choice. They break big rocks into smaller ones, then load them into trucks. Devkumari carries soil in a woven basket. For this they earn $25 a month. Almost all the money goes for food, they say, and much of the rest goes back into buying explosives needed for the job. They have no way out.
Pakistanis call their debt-bondage system peshgi, and it's much the same. Again, most of the victims are members of a despised minority: Christians or "sheik Muslims," recent converts to Islam who are still treated as social outcasts. The abuse of children in the carpetmaking industry is legendary; last September one factory owner kidnapped two brothers, 8 and 10 years old, chained them to their loom them work 12 hours a day.
Some 5 million bonded workers labor in another notorious industry: brick kilns. In 1988, the Pakistani Supreme Court acknowledged the existence of bonded labor in the industry and declared that brickmakers could get a civil-court ruling in order to leave their workplaces. But since 1988 only about a dozen such "certificates of freedom" have been granted, say lawyers and labor activists in Lahore. "Meanwhile, 20 million Pakistanis are in bondage, dying by inches," says activist Ehsanullah Khan.
At one brickyard near Lahore, owner Muhammad Aktar claimed his workers usually repay their loans "within a year." "It's not a bonded system; if they want to go, they go," he said. But two months a year are fallow months, when monsoon rains make it impossible to dry bricks under the sun. " You need to borrow an 'advance' from the owner to get through those months, and [then] you can't leave," says worker Robin Masih, who took out a $635 loan in 1972 to open a dry-goods shop. Technically his family earns $3.70 for making 1,000 bricks - normally about a day's work. But half that goes toward paying off the loan, and the end of each year finds him even deeper in debt. "We're still living in the time of the pharaohs," he said. Another brickworker, a barefoot, mud-spattered 14-year-old named Yusuf Masi, traveled to Lahore from a village near the Indian border because he had badly gashed his foot while mixing clay with a hoe. He became a brick-maker at 6 when he assumed his father's 5,000-rupee [$200] debt - a violation of Pakistani child-labor laws. "Now the debt has grown to 9,000 rupees [$360]," said Masi. He said that construction men at his kiln beat and raped him. Does he ever dream of running away? He said softly: I think about it all the time."
No formal tradition like peshgi remains in the Western Hemisphere, where every slaveholding nation abolished the practice before the turn of the century. Yet some labor practices that remain can only be called slavery in modern dress. In and around the Amazon Basin, forced labor and debt bondage is common, Anti-Slavery International charges. But ironically, some of the worst systemic abuse afflicts descendants of the only African slaves to overthrow a government: Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Columbus set up there 500 years ago and promptly put slaves to work building Europe's first New World colony. Says Casper Geistefer, an American relief worker who has spent a decade on the Dominican Republic's sugar-cane plantations: "It is a corrupt plantation system."
The cheap labor of as many as a million Haitian workers remains critical to the Dominican Republic's sugar-cane, construction and manufacturing sectors. But nowhere is abuse as rampant as in the cane fields. The abuse is all the more glaring because, in many cases, the government is directly involved; most of the plantations are state-owned. Last year the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Human Rights detailed a wide range of abuses; a U.S. congressional committee later took testimony. In retaliation for that scandal and criticism by newly elected Haitian President Jean-Baptiste Aristide, the Dominican government, which vehemently denies using forced labor, last summer expelled thousands of Haitians. But now the cutting season has started again, and the old abuses are back.
Labor agents in Haiti lure workers - including children - to the Dominican border on false promises of good jobs. At the border, Dominican soldiers pay a few dollars a head and then truck workers to the sugar plantations, known as bateyes. In theory, the workers can earn about $3 a day. But the cost of rent, food and tools-workers are even required to rent their machetes-puts them immediately in debt. They are routinely beaten by shotgun-wielding guards, but food is an even more effective whip: if they don't cut enough cane, they don't eat at night. And they're not allowed to leave.
Even though the pay is a pittance, the overseers cheat. "I wasted my life here," says Andre Luis, 75, the unofficial mayor of a cane-cutter community called Bateye Caballona, just outside the Dominican capital. " They pay us 20 pesos a day [about $1.60] and then they take 21 away. You never get what you're supposed to." Often, he said, gunmen appear in workers' villages on payday; the occasional shootings usually occur when workers protest cheating. Only once in 55 years on the cane plantations has Luis broken even for the season. His best year was when he had the plum job of driving a cane truck. He netted $133.
Now he's a pauper. Two years ago his wife fell ill and died. Because Luis took time off from work to nurse and bury her, he was fired from a job cheeking stacked cane. His five sons, all of whom work on the plantation, keep him alive. Late one winter afternoon, he said he had not eaten since that morning. Would he eat that night? "It depends on how the boys do," he said.
Dominicans offer a variety of rationalizations for the way Haitians are treated. It's not slavery, they say; the Haitians come willingly. Many recall that Haiti once held all of the island of Hispaniola as a colony: the dark-skinned Haitians must be controlled, they say, or they will swamp the fairer, Spanish-speaking Dominicans. But perhaps the most telling argument is that the Dominicans are doing nothing worse to their black workers than what Haitians do to each other.
One need look no further than the slums of Port-au-Prince, capital of the poorest country in the hemisphere. There, the poor exploit the children of the peasants, informally adopting the children and setting them up to work as unpaid domestics. The restaveks-"stay-withs"-wear rags, sleep on the bare ground and eat only enough table scraps to maintain them for their dawn-to-dusk duties.
Jesus Guiton gets good value from her restavek, 4-year-old Woodcaby Dieujuste. The child does virtually all the housework for the 34-year-old seamstress, her own older boy and girl and a female cousin, who live in a two-room cinder-block house a few miles from downtown Port-au-Prince. Woodcaby's workday begins at 6 a.m., when he empties the chamber pot, builds a fire, brings water from a well and cooks breakfast. It ends at 9:30 p.m., when he goes to sleep - sometimes on an empty stomach. He usually wears only a filthy pair of trousers. He's given no pay, and got no Christmas present. The boss says she can't afford to send him to school, even though she sends her own children. And he is unlikely to ever see his own parents again; their house in the provincial city of Artibonite has burned down, and they've moved on. He misses his rents he says, but he's happy, "because I terrible nightmares.
Asked about his country's practice of slavery, Aristide said that the cure will be economic development. But must the world's slaves wait for the eradication of poverty to be free? It is a bleak thought. And meantime "nothing ever gets done," says Anti-Slavery International's David Ould. The U.N. Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery is understaffed and short-funded. Even its most shocking reports are hardly ever discussed in public by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, let alone the General Assembly, where governments might be embarrassed into action. If exposure doesn't work, economic sanctions might. Since the cold war ended, the United Nations finally has grown some muscle in its dealings with the world's tyrants. Why not apply it to the slavemasters?