excerpted from the book

Disposable People

New Slavery in the Global Economy

by Kevin Bales

University of California Press, 2004, paper


Mauritania is a police state hiding dirty secret of its slavery.

... a kind of slavery practiced hundreds of years ago, and now existing nowhere else in the world. Slavery, which has been a significant part of Mauritanian culture for centuries, survives here in a primitive, tribal form. African slaves sold in ancient Rome were captured by Moors in what is now southern Mauritania and transported north. Over the centuries the region has had only a few resources to exploit, and the most durable and profitable of them has always been slaves.

... to understand Mauritanian slavery we must go back ... to the slavery of Old Testament times. It both treats the slaves more humanely and leaves them more helpless, a slavery that is less a political reality than a permanent part of the culture. It places a greater value on the bodies and lives of slaves, especially female slaves, than do other forms of slavery. It is so deeply ingrained in the minds of both slave and master that little violence is needed to keep it going. The lack of overt violence has also allowed many outside observers, like the French and American governments, to deny that this slavery even exist. The slaves know better.

The lives of Salma and her family are typical. White Moors who control Mauritania, properly known as Hassaniya Arabs, are organized into large extended families, which are further linked together into several tribes. Virtually all extended families of the dominant Hassaniya castes have owned slaves for generations. Any individual slave is the specific property of a male member of the family; as property, the slaves are inherited and, very occasionally, sold. Slave families usually live with their master's household. Some masters are kind, treating their inherited slaves almost as their own children; others are brutal. The Haratines, the ex-slaves freed over the generations, are usually the offspring of slave mothers and White Moor fathers (and thus are sometimes called Black Moors). Slave women prepare food, wash, and clean for the entire extended household. Slave men do whatever work they are ordered to: in the countryside, herding and basic agriculture; in the cities, almost any kind of work imaginable. The slaves are not paid for their work, and generally have no freedom of choice or movement. But the fact that a slave's parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have worked and lived in the household of the same Moor family often forges a deep emotional link between master and slave.

This is the paradox of Mauritanian slavery. Many slaves think of themselves as members of their master's family. Equally, as devout Muslims, many slaves believe that they are placed by God into their master's household, and that to leave it would be sinful... While many slaves would leave their masters but cannot, others are able to leave but will not. Unlike the slaveholders of the new slavery, most of the Moor masters feel a certain responsibility and obligation to their slaves, seeing themselves as good family men and good Muslims. They refer to their slaves as children, needing care and guidance, and they expect their obedience. Willful slaves are punished, but elderly slaves are often cared for after their usefulness is gone. The relationship between master and slave is deep, complex, and long-lasting. Given that a significant portion of the population is either master or slave, individual relationships take every imaginable form, from friendly intimacy to brutal exploitation. To be sure, a master who respects his slaves and treats them with anything like equality is very rare; but extreme brutality, while less rare, is not common. The experience of the great majority of slaves falls between these poles. Their lives are hard, their spirits and potential suppressed, and their freedom taken away. They are slaves, but they are not seen as disposable ...


... in 1980, probably as a condition of financial aid from Saudi Arabia, Mauritania implemented the Sharia, the extreme religious law of Islamic countries. Most people today know of the draconian measures of the Sharia: the stoning to death of adulterers, the amputation of the hands of thieves, and the decapitation of convicted murderers. Less well known are the laws that apply specifically to slaves. For example, one rule states that there will be severe punishment for any man who does not "restrain his carnal desires," but it adds, "except with his wives and slave-girls, for these are lawful to him."' The law concerning the freeing of slaves is clear: it is the prerogative of the master alone ("a slave may be allowed to purchase their freedom if you find them to have any promise"). And the power that the Sharia gives any Muslim man over his wives and sisters is extended to his slave women and their children. Though the Koran also orders that a man should "show kindness to the slaves you own," since its institution the Sharia has been used to keep the slaves intimidated and mindful of their place. Ex-slaves have been executed, and one whose hand was amputated for theft died as a result. In contrast, Moors found guilty of murdering slaves have not suffered execution. To make sure that everyone understands the way things are, the judgments and punishments of the Sharia courts are performed in public, leaving little doubt as to the official distinction made between slave and master.

Another important distinction is made between male and female slaves. In Moor society, wealth was traditionally measured in the number of female slaves a man owned. Though they are infrequently sold, a young male slave might go for $500 to $700, a mature female for $700 to $i,000, and a young and healthy female for even more. Children of slave women always became and still become the property of their masters, in spite of the law abolishing slavery. Adult male slaves cannot be required by law to remain with their masters, but adult females, especially with children, are rarely protected in the courts. Masters may use force to keep a woman in slavery; or they may simply keep her by taking her children under tight control. To prevent escapes, children are often transferred away from their mothers to a member of the master's family in another part of the country.

The pervasive nature of slavery also means that slaves have almost] no alternatives. A slave who leaves his or her master's household is unlikely to find any other work. White Moor families have no need to hire laborers, as they have their own slaves. Poorer White Moors, the Zenaga caste of herders and cultivators, are also tied to Hassaniya families as obligatory vassals and would not (and could not, because of their poverty) hire escaped slaves. The free non-Moors in Mauritania do not keep slaves, but they normally have plenty of family members whom they would hire before considering any outsider. When slaves do leave a master, they leave with nothing. With nowhere to live, no guarantee of food or clothing, they quickly fall into desperation. Some escaped women slaves become prostitutes and some men find a hard-scrabble existence in the city, but for most freedom means starvation. In a country organized into extended families, the escaped slave is an outcast. Immediately identifiable by color, clothing, and speech, an escaped slave would be asked, "Who do you belong to?" by any potential employer. From the perspective of those in control of jobs and resources, escaped slaves have already proved their untrustworthiness by turning their backs on their "families," a view shared by many slaves.

On the streets there are already a good number of beggars, many of them disabled, to remind slaves of where they would almost certainly end up. Thus slaves are tempted to flee only if a master is very brutal or violent-but in fact physical abuse is rare. All my informants, even ex-slaves, confirmed this. The beatings that they described were more or less accepted "for the sake of discipline." Generally, they seemed to feel that every once in a while a child or a slave needs the discipline of a spanking to be kept in line. When cases of extreme violence did occur, they were roundly condemned as a violation of Islamic law.

Under these conditions, most masters do not need to force their slaves to stay. It is just as easy for them to say, "Go if you like," for they know the slaves have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. A slave is free to ask his or her master for payment, but the master is equally free to refuse. The change in the law in 1980 altered the legal obligation of slaves to serve their master, but not the reality of work and exploitation. While legal ownership of slaves was abolished, no change in the working relationship was legislated; masters don't have to pay their slaves or provide any sort of social security. This arrangement allows the legal fiction of slavery's abolition to continue. The Mauritanian government, though admitting that hundreds of thousands of "ex-slaves" do unpaid work in exchange for food and clothing, insists this is not slavery. Violence is rarely needed to keep slaves obedient since the entire social system maintains a culture of order and obedience. Of course, the ruling White Moors and their government hold a monopoly on violence and can and do use it as necessary against perceived threats, such as political opponents or organizations supporting ex-slaves.

To understand this slavery that is not slavery, we must remember the Mauritanian context. This country is not part of the modern world. The culture is isolated: there are very few sources of information, most of which are controlled by the government. International news on television and in the press focuses on the Arab world, concentrating on the international struggle for greater Islamic purity and never touching on human rights. If the illiterate majority of slaves could read, there would be virtually nothing they could learn that did not reinforce the status quo.

Feeling pressured and watched, the government has become paranoid and violent. Outnumbered by the non-slavekeeping and often economically independent Afro-Mauritanians, the White Moors will do anything to hold on to power. Beginning in 1989 they turned on the AfroMauritanians, who had been pressing for greater recognition and for democratic participation. In 1990 the government whipped up lynch mobs of Haratines to hunt down Afro-Mauritanians and Senegalese. At least two hundred black Senegalese were killed in the capital alone. Under attack by government forces, over 70,000 Afro-Mauritanians were expelled or fled into neighboring Senegal and Mali. The torture, maiming, and murder of over five hundred Afro-Mauritanians, many of them members of the military or holders of public positions, has been documented by the United Nations. With the Afro-Mauritanian opposition shattered and its leadership murdered, the government completed the exercise in 1993 by passing an amnesty law protecting all its employees or soldiers who took part in the massacres and expulsions from pursuit or prosecution.

The massacres, torture, disappearances, arrests and detentions, and extrajudicial executions of 1989 to 1991 made it clear what would happen. pen to anyone who threatened the status quo.

The contradictions within Mauritania are hard to fathom. Here are slaves who are free, but cannot leave; masters who control everything, but fear everyone. Marvelous hospitality is the setting for the most blatant lies: government officials welcomed me into their homes and would then proceed to deny that any form of slavery exists in Mauritania. It is a country so rigidly separated into competing groups that the divisions might have been made with a ruler.

[Mauritania] is about the same size as Colombia, or the American states of California and Texas combined, yet it holds only a little more than 2 million people, giving it the lowest population density on earth. Mauritania is practically all desert: it is really just the western end of the great Sahara. Over one-third of the country, the eastern region that borders Mali, is known as the "empty zone." Here, in an area the size of Great Britain, there are no towns, no roads, and virtually no people.

French colonists drove Portuguese traders out of the Senegal River region in the seventeenth century and quickly concentrated on a very profitable business-slaves. Setting up a base, St. Louis, at the mouth of the river, they sent European trade goods up river and into the desert regions. Their influence secured a steady supply of slaves from the feuding and rigidly stratified peoples of the interior. Mauritania's 'White Moors provided a large portion of these slaves, capturing and trading the non-Arabs of its southern region in exchange for firearms, cloth, and sugar. Sold down the river and shipped from St. Louis, these blacks became the plantation slaves of Haiti and other French colonies, and they were sold throughout the Americas.

Since the commercial exportation of slaves had ended in the nineteenth century, Mauritania had little to offer economically. And the French gave back next to nothing, using the colony as a place of exile for political agitators from other colonies and pointedly overlooking the endemic slavery of Mauritanian society. By the time the independent Islamic Republic of Mauritania was declared in 1960, the country still could not boast of any paved highways or a railway.

The country's first president was a young White Moor lawyer with substantial political clout with both the Moors and the French (he was Charles de Gaulle's son-in-law). Subverting the new democratic constitution, President Mokhtar ould Daddah absorbed all political parties into his own, eliminated all political rivals, and enshrined one-party rule into law within three short years. To further consolidate White Moor control a new capital was founded at Nouakchott. Though only a dusty village of 300 people, it was well within the Moorish part of the country and thus shifted the country's center of gravity away from the Afro-Mauritanian south. To increase White Moor control, Arabic was made the compulsory language of instruction in schools. When Afro-Mauritanians protesting their rapid exclusion demonstrated in the capital, the army was called out and opposition forcibly suppressed. Merely discussing racial conflict was banned. To further reduce dissent, the ruling party took control of all trade unions as well. By the early 1970S government repression had turned a sleepy French colony into a single-party police state relying on racial discrimination. The dictatorship of ould Daddah silenced criticism and forced a program of Arabization on the country.

colonels who had ousted the president in a bloodless military coup. in 1980, attempting to divert attention away from the continuing racial discrimination of their policies, it only served to alert the rest of the world to the problem. By 1981 one of the colonels, Maawiya Sid'Ahmed ould Taya, had emerged as the strongman; since that time he has run Mauritania.

It was President ould Taya who directed the attacks on the AfroMauritanians in 1989 to 1991, and under his orders leaders of the human rights groups were detained in 1997. His administration has continued the program of ethnic cleansing known as Arabization, expanding it into the Afro-Mauritanian heartland in the Senegal River region. Since the late 1980s he has forced through a "sensitization program" that has flooded the fertile southern valleys with White Moor land buyers, supporting development schemes that always hinge on dispossessing Afro-Mauritanian farmers. By inciting hatred against the Afro-Mauritanians the government diverts attention from the plight of the slave population and at the same time encourages the Black Moor ex-slaves to distance themselves from the "traitorous" AfroMauritanians. This strategy of divide and conquer requires that the slaves identify with their master's rather than their own interests. For the present, because of the social isolation and powerlessness of the slaves, it is working, but social and economic change is eroding Moor power.

Mauritania is an economic basket case. The country carries a staggering foreign debt of over $2.3 billion-more than five times its total annual export earnings. Per capita income has been falling steadily and is now about $340 per year, making its population one of the poorest on earth.

At the personal level Mauritanians suffer poverty almost beyond comprehension. Many people have only the scantiest material possessions: two or three bits of clothing; some plastic jugs, pots, and baskets; a few iron tools; a teapot and some glasses; a blanket or quilt that might serve as carpet, bed, or tent; and nothing more. The hot and dry climate actually helps the poor to live, as most of the year only minimal shelter is needed, and slaves normally sleep on the ground outside their master's house or in crude lean-tos made of brush or scrap wood. For the poor, and for slaves, the diet is little more than rice or couscous (about a pound a day), mixed with the bones and scraps from their master's meal. Slaves are easily identified on the streets by their filthy, ragged clothes, the masters by their flowing and spotless robes.

Not surprisingly, average life expectancy for a male Mauritanian is only forty-nine years, and somewhat less for slaves. One finds that withered, ancient-looking slave women are in their thirties; and slave children are bony and stunted, often showing cuts and wounds that are slow to heal on their malnourished bodies. Children are everywhere: nearly half of the population is under the age of fourteen. This doesn't lessen productivity, however, since slave children receive no schooling and go to work at the age of five or six. In the town of Boutilimit, behind the large White Moor houses with courtyards, I found lean-tos and shacks that I first took to be crude shelters for goats. From these

The slaveholders enjoy the advantages of using slave labor within a modern economy. It's true that the imported goods they buy are costly in the context of the Mauritanian economy, but profits based on slave labor are also high. The benefits pass up the economic chain as well. French exporters supply most consumer goods to Mauritania. A look around any shop shows that the country is a dumping ground for European goods that have passed their "sell by" dates (especially worrying to anyone looking for medicine, for little in the pharmacies is current). To maintain this export market the French government actively supports the ould Taya regime, calling it the "most democratic country in Northern Africa," and funds economic development projects. Many of the projects seem so inappropriate as to be bizarre-in a country where few people have running water, very large sums have been spent on a satellite communications network for the 3 percent who have telephones. Of course, such strange priorities can be assigned when most citizens have no say in how resources are allocated.

Some slaves have learned of the 1980 abolition law and believe\ themselves to be free. They assume that now they are not required to hand over half or more of their crop to their masters. Confronted with such resistance, the slaveholders simply drive the families from the land. And as the urban economy grows, more slaveholders are finding new uses for the land they control. When they need land for building or development, they take it from the slaves who have been farming it. Whatever the White Moors' motives, the courts regularly support the land claims of slaveholders.

... It is only in the realm of foreign opinion that the existence of slavery, rather than its abolition, becomes a problem. International opinion is important to the Mauritanian government because it is so dependent on foreign aid. To ensure the flow of aid, it has chosen the easiest approach: mounting a campaign of disinformation rather than addressing the issue of slavery. (We've already seen how)the government abolished slavery without telling the slaves, but the smoke screen extends much farther. Since some human rights organizations persist in demonstrating the existence of slavery, the government has set up two "human rights" organizations of its own: the National Committee for the Struggle against the Vestiges of Slavery in Mauritania and the Initiative for the Support of the Activities of the President. While the title of the second rather gives away its role in providing boosters and yes-men, the first works more cleverly. To the United Nations and to other governments, it appears as an "independent" organization with the position that there may be some slavery in Mauritania, but only the vestiges: regrettable but tiny pockets of bad labor practice. Members of the truly independent organizations concerned with slavery SOS Slaves and El Hor, are kept literally under lock and key. When SOS Slaves is finally able to bring a case to court or to win the freedom of an escaped slave against government obstruction, the National Committee responds, "Ah yes, it is good that another vestige has been eradicated." It then points to the very low number of slavery cases brought to the courts, failing to mention that judges keep throwing out such cases on the grounds that they lack jurisdiction. The willingness of UN and foreign countries to accept the word of these government-front organizations can be explained in two words: Islamic fundamentalism. The United States and France, two key supporters of the Mauritanian regime, need the country as a buffer against the Islamic fundamentalists of Algeria and Libya.

To prop up the Mauritanian government, the United States and France provide the regime with both large shipments of material aid and great bundles of political excuses. The French(as we have seen,) praise the government as democratic and fund large development projects, studiously ignoring questions of slavery. The Americans deflect any suggestions of widespread enslavement in the country. Their 1999 "Human Rights Report for Mauritania" states: "A system of officially sanctioned slavery in which government and society join to force individuals to serve masters does not exist; however, there continued to be unconfirmed reports that slavery in the form of forced and involuntary servitude persists in some isolated areas... with some former slaves continuing to work for former masters in exchange for... lodging, food, or medical care. Many persons, including some from all ethnic groups, still use the designation of slave in referring to themselves or others."

If these were American children being referred to as "slaves," immediate outrage would follow-but they are not. For the Americans it is politically expedient to stick to the fiction that there are only vestiges of slavery in Mauritania. The ould Taya government is a regime that the Americans and the French can do business with, even if it means winking at some of the local customs. This is a disgrace. Slavery in Mauritania is very different from the new slavery that grips the rest of the world and it needs more, not less, attention and intervention. It is more deeply rooted in history and custom than the new slavery and thus more intractable. For this reason it is less likely to give way before economic pressure. Here we find not businessmen who have decided to invest in slavery and who could also choose to disinvest, but rather the entire ruling class of a country united to defend its way of life.

As in the nineteenth-century American South, in Mauritania race matters intensely. Racism is the motor that drives Mauritanian society. Despite extensive intermarriage, White Moors generally disdain their black slaves and regard them as inferior beings. The woridview of the White Moors is clearly hierarchical, casting themselves as superior in all things. That superiority also stirs fear and animosity toward the Afro-Mauritanians who want a fair share in government. This form of racism is sometimes hard for non-Mauritanians to see, since black slaves live in White Moor households and all attend the same mosques and ride the same buses. But it is so strong that no official segregation is needed: the lines of family and tribe are exact and impermeable. The White Moors hold on to what is theirs.

It will certainly be more difficult to dislodge slavery from Mauritania than from countries where the new slavery exists. The ruling White Moors' deep cultural and economic vested interest in slavery makes them as ready to fight for this privilege as the southern states of the United States fought for theirs. And in Mauritania there is no Abraham Lincoln, no Union Army-only a tiny and persecuted abolitionist movement. Moreover, just as the Confederacy had a powerful friend in Great Britain, who needed the South's cotton, so Mauritania is supported by France and the United States, who need help to stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. All in all, this portends a long fight. Those who want to stop slavery in Mauritania face a more daunting prospect than did the American abolitionists of the 1850s when they looked south and saw 4 million slaves bound by two hundred years of violence, custom, and law.

Every day, members of the Mauritanian organizations SOS Slaves and El Hor work to help slaves into freedom. The story they bring to slaves, the example they set, shows the way out of bondage. Though their leaders are arrested and imprisoned, though their meetings are broken up and their publications censored, they are not giving up. Many of the leaders and members of both these organizations are ex-slaves, and like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman they are in the fight to the end.

Disposable People

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