Modern Day Slavery: Seif Kousmate's Photos of the Haratins in Mauritania Reveal Their misery—and Got Him Jailed

A LEGACY OF SERVITUDE: Aichetou Mint M’barack with her daughter and grandchildren. As a child, she was taken from her mother and given to a family. During her time in captivity, she had eight children; two were taken and given to other masters. All were eventually freed with the help of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement. The family now lives on the outskirts of Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE

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."

Photograph by Seif Kousmate
Mabrouka Mint Aichetou, 20, was taken from her mother when she was a child. Released from slavery in 2011, she continues to suffer pain from burn scars inadequately treated by her former masters. Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE
Free Haratin on a beach in Nouakchott. “The most striking thing,” says Kousmate, “is that even if they are released, even if they are born to free parents, they cannot get civil status or basic civil rights.” Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE
Moctar entered school at age 13, after escaping his abusive masters. Now 19, he hopes to become a lawyer to fight for the rights of the Haratin. Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE
Haratin boys learning the Koran in the village of Maata Moulana, three hours drive from Nouakchott. Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE
Fatimatou and her daughter Mbarka were freed in the early ’90s by the organization SOS Slavery. “It is very hard to talk about slavery or identify slaves or former slaves in Mauritania,” says Kousmate. “It is a very taboo issue in society, and the government denies its existence. I had to rely on a network of activists to find people I could talk to. The hardest part was gaining their trust.” Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE
Tarhil, a desolate, government-sponsored district outside Nouakchott, is home to many Haratin. Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE
Henna grew up as the slave of a white Moorish family. She ran away in 2005, walking more than 45 miles to find a road that would reach Nouakchott, where she found activists who helped recover her two children. Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE
Salek's mother, Salma, was a slave brought from Senegal. After years of abuse from his masters, Salek fled to Nouakchott, eventually finding his younger brother Bilal. Together, they went back to free their mother and sister, Yema. Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE
Most Haratin children are not allowed to attend public school. This makeshift classroom was provided by a local association. Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE
A slavery workshop in Nouakchott teaches women to sew. Most are very poor and, with little education, can't find work. SOS encourages them to set up micro-projects for self-employment. Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE
The Haratin in the Nouakchott suburb Riyad are Arabic-speaking black Africans of the Sahara who adopted Islam under the Moors. They make up one of Mauritania’s largest ethnic groups, and nearly all of them live in poverty. Hundreds of thousands are the “property” of a master, despite the official abolition of slavery. Photograph by SEIF KOUSMATE