Mattalla Ould M’Boirk, “I’d rather be shot than return to my owners”

Former slave Mattallah Ould M'Boirk with his family, Mauritania capital Nouakchott. December 2010

In August 2007 Mauritania’s National Assembly unanimously adopted a law criminalizing slavery. But, according to the NGO SOS Esclaves, 18 percent of Mauritania’s 3.1 million people were slaves in 2009. To date no one has been prosecuted, and the age-old practice continues.

Mattalla Ould M’Boirk works for SOS Esclaves in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. Having spent most of his life as a slave, he knows what slavery and freedom mean. He told IRIN his story:

“When I saw my mother and sister beaten by our owners, I just couldn’t take it. I wanted out. But they beat me too.

“My work was to take care of livestock and make charcoal. I would leave with the camels in the morning, make charcoal and go out looking for drinking water. I would return to our settlement around midnight.

“Our ‘home’ was just an area of the settlement encircled with a cloth. We were given nothing to eat except when our owners had leftovers. We would go into the desert to hunt small animals like lizards to cook and eat.

“We couldn’t just leave. This is the Sahara. If we fled we would die of hunger or thirst. Anyway, our owners would come and find us in their vehicles; slaves who tried to escape were often killed. We know of cases like that.

“We would be beaten if we lost a camel, or if we sat on the same mat as our masters, or disobeyed them. Once, when I lost some camels due to the wind, my owner’s son beat me in the eyes with a club.

“One day I was near a road and some soldiers picked me up, asking me to show them where they could buy a sheep and some milk… I ended up telling the soldiers not to bring me back to my owner’s place.

“Then my owners came by, asking where I was. I told the soldiers I’d rather be shot dead than return to my owners; the soldiers told the men to leave.

“Finally SOS Esclaves heard about me and helped me escape for good. My family still wants to get out but they haven’t found a way.”


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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