Mauritania: The Real Beginning
Four months after the passing of a law criminalising slavery in Mauritania, anti-slavery activists hope newly-announced funding for the reintegration of former slaves will address the many problems they continue to face in Mauritanian society.
"Quite obviously, we're very pleased with the announcement," said Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, member of the anti-slavery organisation SOS Esclaves, which has been leading the fight against slavery in Mauritania for years. "The government is sending slaves a strong signal and it is also proof that the authorities have heard our calls."
When slavery was criminalised in August, human rights and anti-slavery organisations urged the government - as they had been doing for years - to adopt accompanying measures for the law to be effective.
Officially abolished in 1981, slavery continues to be practiced in all Mauritanian communities, mostly in rural areas, by upper-class lighter-skinned Moors (Berber Arabs) as well as black Africans. One estimate by the Open Society Justice Initiative places the number of slaves and former slaves at 20 percent of the population - or about 500,000 people - but the numbers are difficult to confirm.
On 23 November, Mauritanian Finance Minister Abderrahmane Ould Hamma Vezaz announced 19 million euros (US$27.8 million) for reintegration programmes for former slaves.
"This sum will be used in the framework of the fight against the repercussions of slavery and against poverty," Ould Hamma Vezaz said. The sum has been allotted in the 2008 budget, which must be definitively adopted by parliament by the end of the year.
Since Mauritania's first democratically elected president came to power in March 2007, signs of progress have emerged on this issue.
"For the first time in the history of the country, a master was put in prison in mid-October for the crime of slavery against two young children," Ould Dah Ould Abeid said, adding that the case was judged before the regional tribunal of Kiffa, in the Assaba region.
But he said the government must go further still. "From now on, slaves need a recasting of the administration and the justice system, so that the institutions have a multi-class and citizen image," he said. "The courts still do not treat slavery cases as they should."
Despite changes in the law, slaves continue to be bound by their masters and suffer discrimination.
Nowhere to go
At a house in the Riyad neighbourhood of Nouakchott, Hanna Mint Salem tells of fleeing her masters in the Trarza region. She is around 30, but looks 15 years older. She fled so abruptly she had to leave behind her two children, aged two and eight.
Today, a slave who tries to flee his master has nowhere to go. In the absence of welcome centres or reintegration infrastructure, they often find refuge with sympathisers of SOS Esclaves.
"I looked for help at the military brigade of R'Kiz, [a district of Trarza]," Mint Salem whispered. "They sent me to the president of the regional tribunal, who didn't want to deal with me. So I went back to the brigade and they threatened to throw my husband in jail if we kept coming to talk to them about slavery.
"Today, I'm here. I don't know where to go. But I no longer have faith in the justice system."
Algerian anthropologist Malek Chebel, author of the recently published book Slavery in the Land of Islam, says despite the government's efforts, practices in Mauritania are stubborn and hard to eradicate. "Despite the denials, slavery remains a glaring reality," he told IRIN.
In certain villages of Guidimakha in southern Mauritania on the border with Senegal, slaves are still buried in separate cemeteries. There are mosques for nobles and mosques for slaves. "Spatial segregation, even within residential neighbourhoods, remains extremely strong," said Demba Marico, geography professor at the University of Nouakchott.