'Slavery Is Their Reality'

Abdel Nasser was given his first slave, a cherubic 5-year-old named Yebawwa, in 1969. According to a tradition among so-called white Moors in Mauritania, a boy asks for a coveted object at the moment of his circumcision. Many request a gun or a camel. Most, especially those in the elite warrior caste to which Nasser belongs, ask for a slave. Though Mauritania formally abolished slavery in 1981, Arab white Moors in the country still hold an estimated tens of thousands of black Moors, who are Afro-Mauritanian, as slaves--or in what the U.S. State Department prefers to call the "vestiges of slavery." The black Moors have no legal rights and receive no pay; within Mauritania's rigid, racialized caste system, they carry water, tend camels and even wash their masters' feet. Masters often take female slaves as concubines. "I have personal knowledge of this," Nasser says.

So do others. While the Mauritanian government denies the existence of slaves, last week Amnesty International released a report that detailed slavery in the country and criticized the government for turning a "blind eye" to the problem. According to the report, "the government has not prosecuted a single offender for retaining a slave, or for buying or selling someone into slavery." Instead the task has fallen to people like Nasser, 38, who now lives in France, and his partner Boubacar Messaoud, a former slave still in Mauritania. Since 1995 their advocacy group SOS Slaves has worked to free slaves throughout the country through information campaigns, legal advocacy and even clandestine rescue operations.

Mauritania has banned SOS from operating in the country, but the group continues to press the country's military leader, Col. Maaouya ould Taya, to enforce abolition, which made slavery illegal but did not criminalize slave ownership. It's not been an easy fight. Nasser, who moonlights as an art-gallery assistant in Paris, has been convicted in absentia for operating an illegal NGO. Messaoud works in the Mauritanian city of Nouakchott as a counselor for escaped slaves. He's been arrested repeatedly. SOS works with the rare sympathetic imam who will defend escaped slaves in Sharia courts, and with the rare lawyer who will do the same pro bono in asylum courts overseas. Most daringly, SOS uses ex-slaves to infiltrate nomadic camps in remote parts of the country. They tell current slaves that freedom is possible.

The vast majority, however, are too scared to follow. Certainly, some slaves fear physical punishment if they flee. Most, however, are held in place by what Frederick Douglass once called "the matchless meanness of caste." "When a slave runs away," says Nasser, "he's losing his roots. Slavery is their reality." In such a context, "it would take a person of enormous energy, with a built-in quest to find a new life, to stand up and walk away," says Robert Pugh, a former U.S. ambassador to Mauritania.

One such person is Teslim mint Soueilin, 36. Last year Soueilin's master died, and she went to a local mullah, Ely Cheikh ould Moma, for spiritual guidance concerning her newfound freedom. Moma responded by claiming that Soueilin's master had promised him one of his slaves in exchange for a blessing, and the cleric decreed that Soueilin and her five children now belonged to him. This is an example, Nasser says, of the "key nexus between Islam and slavery," wherein slaves are told that to deny their enslavement is to deny the will of Allah. In this case, however, Soueilin resisted by reaching out to SOS Slaves. After SOS threatened an ugly publicity campaign, regional officials persuaded Moma to free Soueilin.

Outside governments have yet to take up Nasser's cause forcefully. European countries say little publicly about the topic. For years Washington tied economic aid to Mauritania to the country's progress in abolishing slavery. But that linkage was dropped in 1999, after Taya severed relations with Iraq. Now the State Department hews closely to the line that "a system of officially sanctioned slavery does not exist."

The irony is that Nasser's passion was fueled by Western sources. His eyes were opened, he says, by Rousseau's "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen." "All of my beliefs fell apart," Nasser says, and he realized then that "I would have to turn against my own." This included his own father, Ethmane Sid'Ahmed Yessa, a Mauritanian politician who'd served as attorney general for five years and who still owns slaves. After fleeing to France in 1987, Nasser began to write treatises on freedom aimed at Taya, who had seized power in a coup three years earlier.

Nasser is not concerned only about slavery. He'd also like to see Mauritania return to a democratic system. "I was born into politics," he says. Some day, he'd like to leave his modest apartment in Paris and serve as an adviser in a free Mauritania. That doesn't seem likely any time soon. He's persona non grata in his country, and no longer has any contact with his father, who's now a private-practice attorney. "My struggle," he says, "is my family." And with a government that still overlooks a 12th-century practice in a 21st-century world.