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Former slaves struggle in new home

Ramadan Ould Semette, a former slave in southern Mauritania who has moved with hundreds of others to create their own desert commune
(Seyid O. Seyid/IRIN)

Two years after more than 100 former slave families left their village in southern Mauritania to create their own community away from slave-owners, members of the group told IRIN they are still struggling to adapt to an independent life.

Ramadan Ould Semette, one of those breaking away from the village of Lefrewa - where the families were slaves for generations - got his long-awaited new beginning but little else. “We have nothing but our muscles to survive by and we keep struggling in the desert. The only benefit of living here in a new place is that we have physically moved on from historical exploitation.”

Starting over

Moving on and building a livelihood is particularly tough in a country where most people already live in difficult conditions. Half of Mauritania is uninhabited and inhospitable desert territory; nearly half of its three million people have no access to safe water, according to the UN; and the food monitoring group FEWSNET estimated that more than 330,000 people suffered from malnutrition as of October 2008.

An advisor to the National Human Rights Commission, Biram Ould Abeide, told IRIN the former-slave commune called Sawap, or “righteous” in Arabic, had difficulty even finding a new home. “No community allowed them to join. They faced serious problems to obtain authorisation to settle where they are now. It is an issue of land rights; there is no land registered in the names of former slaves.” Abeide said then-President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdellahi intervened to help settle the families in 2006.

Commune member Semette told IRIN if someone in the group needs to see a doctor he or she is carried by donkey through the desert to the closest medical centre 3km away. Water is scarce. And women walk to neighbouring villages to find food, he added.

Rights experts said that while a 2007 law criminalised slavery, mechanisms to help former slaves are lacking.

Abeide told IRIN despite the law – which defined slavery as including debt bondage and forced marriage – former slaves’ rights continue to be “neglected at best, trampled at worst.” According to the commission, the law has led to the liberation of 43 people with hundreds of cases still in the courts.

Human rights lawyer Mohamed Bilal Ould Dike told IRIN the law criminalising slavery was but a first step. “There is no protection of victims under this law. The real guarantees needed are legal [enforcement] and socioeconomic. There needs to be a plan to insert these victims into the economy.”

One member of the commune said she cannot find paid work. “We work as domestic workers,” Tesslem Mint El Kory told IRIN. “But the families in this area are so poor they cannot afford to pay us. So we are doing the same work we have always done and are still not paid.”

The post-coup government’s human rights commissioner, Lemine Dadde, told IRIN the ruling military council has budgeted more than US$5 million to help victims of slavery. The commissioner said 46 villages in extreme poverty with high concentrations of black Africans – who make up most of the slave population – are expected to receive emergency cash assistance starting February 2009.

Hundreds of former slaves and their families have relocated to a desert plot they named Sawap

Seyid O. Seyid/IRIN
Hundreds of former slaves and their families have relocated to a desert plot they named Sawap
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Former slaves struggle in new home
Hundreds of former slaves and their families have relocated to a desert plot they named Sawap

Photo: Seyid O. Seyid/ IRIN
Hundreds of former slaves have relocated to a desert plot they named Sawap

Slavery has been outlawed in Mauritania since colonial times. Despite periodic legislation reinforcing the ban since independence in 1960, all ethnic communities still practice slavery – mostly in rural areas – according to human rights organisations.

No return

The village leader of Lefrewa, 90km south of the capital Nouakchott, told IRIN the 100 families had always been welcomed in the community. “Our village is one of the nearest to the capital Nouakchott, so we are very aware of the dangers and illegality of slavery,” said Lemrabett Ould Mohamed Aly.

“Migration to a new place is a matter of personal choice; no one forced them to do so. There are still former slave families living among us.”

The village chief said a 1976 exodus of former slaves from Lefrewa had ended in their return. “They came back to us when they could not find another place to live as peacefully as they had among us.”

When IRIN asked the families in Sawap if anyone was tempted to move back to Lefrewa given their economic plight, Mbarek Ould Mahmoude said: “We have managed to escape the land of our former masters in order to enjoy our civic rights…The masters used to instruct us to vote for their choice. We had no choice but to follow their orders blindly. So, no – we are not going back.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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