Freedom in the Desert
By Safa and Robert Asher
Modern-day slave finds freedom in the desert
In Mauritania, one man’s extraordinary journey from slavery to freedom – and the obstacles he overcame to free his family – offers rare insight into a little-known world.
At SOS Esclaves offices in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, Matallah Ould Mbarak Alsalem prepares tea. Matallah is a handyman and cleaner at SOS Esclaves, an NGO dedicated to the fight against slavery and coming to the aid of slaves and former slaves. He is one himself.
Born in a desert region of north-eastern Mauritania, his mother was a Hratine, a slave, and by convention so was he. The Hratine, the main slave caste, are descendents of black African ethnic groups subjugated for the most part by white Arab Berbers. Estimates indicate that 10-20 percent of Mauretania’s 3.5 million people are slaves, though exact numbers are hard to come by.
They are their masters’ property and live to do their masters’ biding – as do their children, who are often the result of a master’s rape. Escape from slavery is rare and often a solo endeavor, requiring a near perfect set of events to randomly unfold. Matallah was lucky. He was also extraordinary.
“Matallah is the only former slave I’ve ever known who tried to free his family,” says Messaoud Boubacar,” who runs SOS Esclaves in Mauritania.
“Escaped former slaves rarely speak about the families they leave behind, because as slaves their families were broken. Matallah spoke about his family and tried repeatedly to free them, and he succeeded.”
As a slave, Matallah’s responsibilities, like those of his sister, Schweda, and the other slaves, included grazing their masters’ camels and goats, preparing meals, and fetching wood and water. Simple mistakes would be punished with the lash of a whip.
Shepherding camels often took Matallah out on his own, deep into the desert. One day in 2004, he ventured – unbeknownst to him – near the border to Mali with his herd and was approached by gendarmes, border police, on patrol. They said they needed someone to shepherd and milk their camels and asked if he was interested.
“I told them I was a slave and could not go with them because of my master, that I would be beaten if I did,” Matallah told DW.
But that was not the end of it. The gendarme commander wanted to know more. He grilled Matallah about his situation – and that of his sister and her children. The commander asked if he would like to be free.
“I told him yes, but I wanted a guarantee that I would never be returned to my master,” Matallah says. “He assured me I would never have to go back.”
Showdown with his master
Back at the gendarmes’ base, Matallah’s master and his brothers showed up, insisting their property be handed over to them. But the commander said the decision was Matallah’s.
“My master began telling me that I must return with him because he was my family, my parent, and his brothers and sons were my tribe,” Matallah says. “I told him he was not my family, that he raped my mother and sister in front of me, he beat my brother and me repeatedly, and that if I were to die at that moment it would be better than to return with him.”
With the gendarmes’ protection, Matallah went free, and with the support of SOS Esclaves, he settled in Nouakchott.
A year later, Boubacar and SOS Esclaves located his mother and brother, who had also escaped from slavery and were living in a refugee camp in the Western Sahara. But the family remained incomplete without his sister, Schweda, and her children.
Matallah would not rest until he found them. SOS Esclaves gave him money and twice he ventured into the desert to search for them. He appealed to the gendarmes for help, but was told he would need to pay $5,000 and provide GPS coordinates of their exact location.
But early this year, Boubacar and Matallah learned there was a new police commander in the region, and that he was a Hratine. That may have made all the difference.
Mauritania is deeply divided along ethnic lines. White Arab Berbers make up the majority of the ruling class and hold a tight grip on the reigns of power. Since slave-masters tend to come from the same ethnic group, officials rarely intervene against them.
In March of this year, the gendarmes contacted Matallah, and, accompanied by 15 of them, Matallah and Boubacar spent two days scouring the desert. They found Schweda and her children shepherding camels and sheep, spread across many kilometers. The gendarmes gathered all 10 members of the family and brought them to freedom.
Now Matallah, his sister and her children live in two huts they constructed out of wire fencing and scrap fabric on an empty lot between upscale homes in Nouakchott. Though poor, every penny they earn is theirs to keep and a new life of self-determination has begun.