"Biram Frees": A Look at the Life, Work and Aspirations of Anti-Slavery Campaigner
Biram Dah Abeid, the founder of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) and an antislavery campaigner in Mauritania - a country where "slaves are not restrained by chains", but are a part of rigid socio-economic structure and division of labor steeped in racism - was once told "the Haratin were a special group in a special situation". He did not agree. In Mauritania, with the highest rate of slavery in the world, Biram Abeid's activism revolves around raising awareness about the possibility of a slavery-free life. Mauritanian slaves are disempowered and segregated by illiteracy, poverty, geography, history, ongoing discrimination and influenced by a pro-slavery interpretation of Islam. With approximately 140,000 enslaved Mauritanians, Biram Abeid's job is not an easy one. Through demonstrations, sit-ins, hunger strikes, marches, and general dissemination of information at home and abroad, IRA attempts to free slaves and pressure the Mauritanian Government to hold slave owners accountable for their crime. As Mauritanians continue to "exist somewhere on a continuum between slavery and freedom", Biram Abeid decided to run for the Mauritanian Presidenial elections in June 2014. Critics accused him of inciting racial tensions, but for him, it was an opportunity to start a nation-wide debate about slavery and racism.
UNPO continues to support the noble and ambitious work of Mr Biram Dah Abeid in determination to act against slavery, in all its forms and across the world. Members of UNPO, and in particular the Haratin, are witnesses, if not victims, of all forms of contemporary slavery and of the international leaders’ - both political and economic - continued lack of efforts towards its eradication. UNPO's International Campaign Against Slavery calls on the United Nations General Assembly to take a strong step towards the eradication of slavery by adopting a resolution and ensuring its implementation. Alongside this, the campaign aims to increase awareness about the topic of contemporary slavery: its roots, its causes, its forms, its victims, its consequences, those who fight against it and the way forward to abolish it.
Below is an article published by The New Yorker outlining the life and work of Biram Dah Abeid:
Two springs ago, Biram Dah Abeid arrived home in Nouakchott, the desert capital of Mauritania. At the airport, he was welcomed by hundreds of supporters, along with his wife and children. Abeid, the founder of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, is the most prominent antislavery activist in Mauritania, which is said to have the highest incidence of slavery in the world. It was Friday, the holiest day of the week, and Abeid, returning from a trip to Berlin and Dakar, was enraged. Recently, he had helped force the government to put a slave owner in prison, and he had learned that the man was released after less than two months.
Abeid, a forty-nine-year-old man with hooded, intense eyes and a warm demeanor, went to his house, and changed from his Western suit into a traditional Mauritanian bubu, a long, loose embroidered tunic. He was going to lead a public prayer nearby, in Riyadh, a section of the city with rocky lots, narrow sand-bleached streets, and pastel-painted concrete houses. When he arrived, a few hundred people had assembled under a bright sun. Men sat on a wide mat on an empty stretch of street, wrapping their turbans tight to ward off dust. Women and children gathered behind them. Activists, sympathetic residents, and the press had been alerted that this prayer was going to be special.
In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, while making no provision for punishing slave owners. In 2007, under international pressure, it passed a law that allowed slaveholders to be prosecuted. Yet slavery persists there, even as the government and religious leaders deny it. Although definitive numbers are difficult to find, the Global Slavery Index estimates that at least a hundred and forty thousand people are enslaved in Mauritania, out of a population of 3.8 million. Bruce Hall, a professor of African history at Duke University, said that people endure slavelike conditions in other countries in the region, but that the problem in Mauritania is unusually severe: “Some proximate form of slavery has continued to be a foundation of the social structure and the division of labor within households, so there are many more people who are willing to support it as an institution.” While Abeid was travelling, a well-known imam had given a televised interview. A journalist asked whether slavery existed in Mauritania, and the imam said no. Then why, the journalist asked, had the imam recently given the journalist’s boss a slave girl as a gift? The imam simply smiled.
Many Mauritanian slaves, isolated by illiteracy, poverty, and geography, do not recognize the possibility of a life outside servitude, and part of Abeid’s mission is to make them aware. The job is complicated. Slaves are tied to their masters by tradition, by economic necessity, and, Abeid argues, by a misinterpretation of Islam.
Mauritania is an avowedly Muslim country, and though the constitution endorses both secular and religious law, in civic matters Islamic precepts dominate. But the Koran is ambiguous on the essential question of whether slavery should exist. In much of the world, Muslim scholars argue that the only Islamic basis for slavery is in jihad: after conquering unbelievers, Muslim warriors may take them as slaves, provided that they treat them well. In Mauritania, there is little consensus. Imams who defend slavery often refer to a set of interpretive texts that date back as far as the eighth century. One prominent example is a mukhtasar, or handbook of Islamic law, written by the fourteenth-century Egyptian scholar Khalil ibn Ishaq. According to its precepts, a slave cannot marry without her master’s permission, nor does she have any right to her children; a free man who murders a slave will not be punished by death, but a slave who murders a free man will be; slaves are whipped for fornicating, though a master may have sex with his slave girl; and slaves may not inherit property or give testimony in court.
At Abeid’s public prayer, a member of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (known as IRA) stood to say that he was against any interpretation of Islam that violated its principle of egalitarianism. An imam spoke against slavery and inequity. Another man called for a Haiti-style slave revolt. As they spoke, a plainclothes policeman jumped up and shouted, “Allahu Akbar! What you are saying is wrong!” Men escorted him away.
Abeid came to the microphone, and reporters pushed voice recorders in front of him. “Today will be a historic day,” he said in Hassaniya, the local Arabic dialect. “We will begin today to clean the faith of Mauritania. We will purify the slaves and the slave owners, because both need to be purified. There is a group of bad people who are guarding Islam and using it however they want, and that group is dividing society, putting some people on top and some people down—not because of what they are doing or who they are but because of the color of their skin. We will stop that today.” The crowd murmured in agreement. Abeid is a theatrical speaker, with an impassioned voice that fluctuates wildly, and a habit of preacher-like pauses between phrases.
Abeid addressed the authoritarian government of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, a former officer who took power in a 2008 coup. “Start your campaign against me,” Abeid said, his voice rising nearly to a shout. “Say that I am against religion. Write that and say that in your mosques. Give money to your slaves and send them to say that everywhere—that will not help you.” The audience watched, transfixed, as he railed against the authorities. “We don’t have to explain ourselves to them,” he said. “We are not afraid and we don’t need their money. Sometimes we have nothing but water for dinner. But we are not afraid. They are false Muslims, so they cannot evaluate our Islam. No one can have more conviction than us, because we say the truth. If we die, it will be from the front, not the back. We will not run away.”
He called President Aziz an ignorant military man with whom it was pointless to negotiate, and he suggested that religious leaders were little better. For years, Abeid had asked the Supreme Council for Fatwa and Grievances to prohibit slavery; he would not ask anymore. IRA would free slaves on its own. “Where are my books?” he said, snapping his fingers. Earlier that week, Abeid had sentIRA leaders to the market to buy a number of books that interpreted Islamic law. “These books justify selling people, they justify raping people,” he said. “We will purify the religion, the faith, and the hearts of Mauritanians.” He held up a red hardcover with intricate embossing. “What the Prophet says was hidden by these books, which are not real words from God,” he said. “These old books give a bad image of Islam. We have no choice but to take this step.”
One of Abeid’s bodyguards dropped the books into a cardboard box and doused them in lighter fluid. The crowd was on its feet, peering at the spectacle. No one had expected this. Defacing the holy books of Islam is a crime of apostasy, punishable by death. Abeid set the books on fire.
Mauritania, on the west coast of Africa, is a vast, empty landscape of sand dunes that swirl down to iron-ore pits in the Sahara. It is an impoverished place, supported mostly by mining and fishing, and by military aid from the West, given in exchange for helping to fight terrorism in the region. Since a drought struck the Sahel in the nineteen-sixties, the country has been collapsing in on its cities, as nomads and farmers in search of work migrate from sandy hinterlands to slightly less sandy urban areas. Nouakchott, the largest city, feels marooned in time: aged buildings with faded paint, a few elegant homes hidden behind gardens, and shops and offices that sit in near-stasis, in a heavy heat that relents only during the rainy season.
The city stands at the crossroads of sub-Saharan and northern Africa, which helps to explain its vexed ethnic politics. In the course of centuries, Berbers and Arabs came to inhabit the region, and they took black African slaves. Over time, the bloodlines of the masters and the slaves intermixed and they came to share a language and cultural practices; as the masters imposed their traditions, the slaves lost their own. These days in Mauritania, people speak of the mingled Arab-Berbers as Beydanes and the slaves as Haratin. The Beydanes, a minority, hold most of the country’s wealth and political power. The Haratin, who typically have darker skin, are regarded as a permanent underclass, even after they are freed. Abeid is a Haratin, as are all the people he rescues.
To free slaves and to force the government to imprison slave owners, IRA holds sit-ins in front of the justice ministry, stages hunger strikes, and marches through cities and towns around the country. “We are always protesting something,” Brahim Abeid, a gregarious IRA vice-president, said. Sometimes, police beat protesters, or spray them with tear gas. After demonstrations, IRAsends press releases to supportive human-rights organizations in Europe and the United States, and circulates them within the Mauritanian diaspora. The government tends to respond to protests in one of two ways: it imprisons activists, or it puts slave owners in jail, only to release them within days and close the cases. Several of the men who spoke at the public prayer were later arrested.
After IRA was founded, in 2008, authorities dismissed the organization, and scoffed that Biram Dah Abeid was protesting because he wanted to be regarded as important. “Whenever we brought a slavery case to the police, they would release the slave owner,” Abeid recalled. “We would tell them that they were criminals, and they said, ‘Say whatever you want.’ I decided that this had to stop. The next time we had a slavery case, the police had to put the slave owner in jail or put us in jail.” One day in December, 2010, he learned that two girls were being held as slaves in Nouakchott. That evening, he summoned about eighty activists, and the group went to the house where the girls lived. He alerted the police. An officer showed up with a number of policemen, and said that they would take over. He told the activists to go home. “I told them we would not leave until you free the girls and put these criminals in jail,” Abeid recalled. The police blocked the front door, while the slave owner and her sister hid behind them.
Finally, the police took the slaves to the station, and Abeid and the others followed. For a moment, the activists—schoolteachers, civil servants, the unemployed—remained in a standoff with the police there, a force of some sixty officers. Abeid walked toward a policeman. When the policeman grabbed Abeid’s shirt, Abeid butted him twice with his head. “I wanted to go to jail,” he said. “When people ask why I am in jail, they will have to know there were two slave girls, and the government refused to put the slave owner in jail.” As the activists and the police clashed, Abeid lunged at the police again, and he was arrested. He was jailed for three months; the slave owner was released after nine days. But it was a seminal victory for IRA: the first time that police had imprisoned a slave owner. The organization has since helped to put about twenty others in jail, though often for brief terms. As owners heard about the arrests, they started releasing their slaves, in a ripple of fear. Working through a network of nine thousand activists, IRA has freed thousands of slaves around the country. Haratin often refer to the former slaves as Biram Frees.
In the countryside, entire communities of slaves live in the service of their masters, on call for labor whenever they are needed. They work as camel and goat herders, and in other menial jobs, starting in early childhood; women and children make up the majority of domestic slaves. Because slave status is matrilineal, they typically serve the same families that their mothers and grandmothers did. They usually sleep and eat in the same quarters as the families’ animals.
When I met Haby Mint Mahmoud, a former slave, in Nouakchott, she was wearing a pink chiffon hijab. She has a small-boned, delicate face and a serene way of taking up as little space as possible: sitting on the floor, she pulls her legs in close and folds her body over itself. Now in her late thirties, Mahmoud belonged to a woman and her brother since before she could remember. Her two brothers and her sister were given to her owners’ relatives, and she has lost most of her memories of them. Her owners lived in a rural outpost. All day, Mahmoud gathered firewood, herded animals, and went to the well to collect water. In the evening, she cooked for her masters. There was never rest. Nothing she did was good enough; they beat her constantly. When she went to work in the bush, the brother followed and raped her on so many occasions that she lost count. She had two children from the rapes. One, a young boy, is still alive; like other children of slaves and their masters, he was considered a slave. “They were very harsh with me,” Mahmoud said, of her owners. “It was not normal.” She ran away several times. “I escaped, but the master would always take me back and tell me, ‘If you escape again, I will take you to the police.’ ”
Mauritanian slaves are not restrained by chains; slavery is in large measure an economic and a psychological institution. Slaves are denied secular education, and religion permeates the culture. Because Islam is perceived as endorsing slave ownership, questioning slavery is tantamount to questioning Islam. When slaves are told that servitude in this life brings reward in the next one, some believe it. No one in their community who looks like them has ever known another way of life. One former child slave told me, “In the village, when a slave says he does not want to be a slave anymore, people will ask, ‘Why? Who are you? Your mother was a slave; your grandmother was a slave. Who are you?’ ” Their masters, on the other hand, are the embodiment of Allah’s likeness. “To the slave, his identity is his master,” Abeid said. “The master is his idol, one he can never become, and he is invincible.”
When boys come of age, they sometimes manage to leave their masters’ families. Adult women are considered minors by Mauritanian custom, and female slaves face greater difficulty escaping. Abeid argues that there is a kind of informal coalition—Beydanes, the state, police, judges, and imams—that prevents slaves from leaving their masters. “Whenever a slave breaks free andIRA is not aware and not present, police officers and judges help Arab-Berbers to intimidate the slave until he returns in submission,” Abeid said. Slave owners use physical abuse and threats of death. Children are beaten and women are raped. Courts have ruled that slave owners have the right to former slaves’ inheritances, even to their children.
Still, the masters have begun to worry. In 2008, people in Haby Mint Mahmoud’s village began hearing on the radio that IRA was bringing cases against slave owners. Her masters told her that she was free. “They said that because they were scared, like a lot of slave owners around there,” she recalled. “They called Biram a criminal and said he was working for the United States and Israel. It was a way to keep me with them.” If anyone asked her about her situation, her masters warned her, she should say that she was not a slave.
One of her brothers had escaped years before, and, after going to IRA about his sister, he came to her village to help her leave. She was terrified. Her masters had always told her that any other life would be unbearable. “Even though they beat me, even though they were against me, they were all I knew,” she said. “I did not know where I was going. I was resistant.” She is now married to an IRAactivist, and participates in a project, run by IRA and the U.N., that teaches sewing to former female slaves. She has learned to read and write. “I became free,” she told me. “I met my brothers. My children go to school.” Mahmoud began crying, and tried to hide her face. “But since there is slavery in Mauritania I will always feel that I am not free.”
Before Abeid was born, his family lived as nomads near the Senegal River, in the south of Mauritania: raising sheep, goats, and cows, farming the fields, and moving by seasons. In the rainy season, they crossed the river to Senegal for verdant farmland, and then came back to Mauritania in the dry season. In the early seventies, his family settled in a village called Jidrel Mohguen, where his mother sold seeds, animal skins, and traditional mats in the market. His father had grown old and stopped working. His mother’s first two sons were blind, and she prayed for another son until, nine children later, she had Abeid; he was the twelfth of thirteen. His mother nicknamed him Aïnine el Iyil, which means “the eyes of the boys,” and his parents cherished him. “I’m the first one who went to school in my family,” he told me.
Abeid’s childhood friend Hamady Lehbouss, a teacher and an activist with IRA, described him as a normal boy—interested in sports, music, and girls—but also unusually fearless and increasingly aware of the country’s inequities. Their village had a half-dozen Beydane families and dozens of Haratin families. Beydanes owned the land, and Abeid’s parents and their neighbors farmed it and turned over a portion of the harvest. He heard his parents talk about how the local administration favored the Beydanes. “Our village was divided into two parts, like apartheid,” he said. “That is when I started to see what discrimination was.” When escaped slaves reached Abeid’s village, they stayed with his family. His mother fed and clothed them, and their children began to say that she was their mother. Abeid pitied the former slaves. At school, he watched as Beydane children went blameless after fights with black classmates, while the headmaster punished the black students. “I started to ask my dad questions about the discrimination I saw in the village,” he recalled. “That’s when he told me his story.”
When Abeid was eight, his father told him that he had been born to a slave, and was therefore supposed to be a slave, too. But, while his mother was pregnant, her master had fallen ill, and, heeding the Koranic idea that acts of benevolence will be rewarded, had released him from slavery before he was born. As a young man, Abeid’s father crossed the river to work for a time in Senegal, where he felt free from racial discrimination. Back in Mauritania, he met and married a woman who was a slave, and they had two sons. Full of pride, he went to his wife’s master to ask to take his family to Senegal. The master refused. His father went to court, but the judge said, “This is his slave—unless you want to buy her from him.” His father did not have enough money, so he pleaded to at least take his sons, but the judge refused him again. The French colonial governor told Abeid’s father that the dispute fell under Islamic law and that he could not interfere. Defeated, the father left his wife and children and went back to Senegal. Later, a friend introduced him to Abeid’s mother, and they were married.
“My father wanted to have the evidence to oppose slavery,” Abeid told me. “But he did not have the capacity to convince himself and others intellectually and spiritually.” Despite the trauma of losing his first family, he still believed this was the way Islam had ordained things to be. Abeid’s secular and religious education allowed him to question more than his father had. “I freed myself,” he said. He began reading the teachings of Muhammad, which seemed to him to be clearly against slavery. Later, he read books of Western philosophy that supported this conviction. “My problem is not with religion,” he told me. “It’s with the interpretation of religion as the origin, the justification, and the legitimatization of slavery. The use of Islam, not Islam.”
Abeid told his father that he wanted to fight back. He wrote manifestos about the situation of the Haratin and distributed them around the school in the morning, before the teachers and other students arrived. “There was no other way to inform people,” Lehbouss said. Abeid felt that the villagers, white and black, hated him for questioning slavery. “I remember the discussions I had, not just with students but also with teachers, about discrimination and slavery,” he said. “My whole life has been filled with these kinds of discussion. But they were not open to understanding and helping me.” Parents warned their children not to spend time with the boy with the foolish ideas.
He left for the University of Nouakchott to study law, but, after a year and a half, he ran out of money. The university’s dean already disliked him, for participating in protests for better services on campus. He took an administrative job in the court system, where he worked for the next ten years. While living in the northern city of Nouadhibou, he married and had two daughters. But he eventually quit the courts, frustrated with his superiors. He sold his car and his other possessions, divorced his wife, and reënrolled in the university in Nouakchott, leaving the children behind. “Maybe he has to make the choice between being a good father and a good leader,” Lehbouss told me. “It’s not possible to do both at the same time.” In his thirties, Abeid went to Senegal to get a master’s degree in history, and he wrote his thesis on slavery. His father had died, but Abeid was still searching for evidence to convince him that slavery was wrong. “I would have liked him to be here when I burned the books,” Abeid said. “It would have been a great moral satisfaction.”
In 2003, he did field work in Mauritania, supervised by a prominent abolitionist named Ahmed Khlive. For most of the year, the two stayed up nights discussing the history of slavery in Mauritania, and the conversations sometimes lasted into the morning. When Khlive left for work, his teen-age daughter Leila—fair-skinned, with a cherubic face—made tea for Abeid, and they talked for hours. “He had principles, he was clearly fighting for human rights,” Leila told me; her grandmother had been a slave, and she shared some of Abeid’s zeal. They are now married, and have two young sons and a daughter. “Sometimes I see him in the middle of the night or during the day, and he is absent. I ask him what he’s thinking about, and he says he’s thinking about how to win this fight. Even if it’s just him and me together, we don’t talk about anything else,” she said. “For another person, it could be a big deal, but for me it’s not. I am engaged in this fight. I support him.”
By eight o’clock on the evening of the book burning, local news Web sites had begun calling Abeid a heretic. “When I went to bed, I was satisfied,” he told me. “But I had a feeling something would happen tomorrow. When I woke up, it was a war—in the media, in the mosques.” Newspapers were calling for his death. His phone and Internet had stopped working. Activists flocked to his home, and a steady stream of reporters came for interviews. He prepared himself for the police, and, as the hours dragged on with no sign of them, he thought that the government must want him to run away. In the evening, some journalists told him that they had seen police cars headed to his house.
The police came at nine-thirty and put him in a squad car. “It was dark, and we didn’t know where we were going,” Abeid said. At the police station, Abeid’s cell was filthy, full of mosquitoes, and cramped; five other activists were also imprisoned. Policemen brought a television to the cell, and Abeid watched Mauritanians calling for his death on the news. Hundreds of people had gathered in the streets to protest. Abeid recalled watching as President Aziz appeared onscreen and promised to administer the death penalty.
The police asked Abeid to state on camera why he had burned the books. He refused, suspecting that they would manipulate the video. During his time in prison, the authorities spread a rumor that he was an Israeli agent. “They said I work for the Jews,” he recalled. “It’s a way to make the Mauritanian people turn against me.” The idea gained currency among Beydanes, and blacks and whites argued about his arrest in offices, markets, and mosques.
Police allowed Leila to visit him once, and after that he had no contact with the outside world. He settled into a calm, waiting to die or to be released. But when Haratin guards delivered his meals they would flash him the victory sign. “I understood that things outside were positive for us,” he said. “We had some support.” IRA led thousands-strong protests. Haratin marched in the streets. After four months, he was released, and as he left he thought, We won. A scrawl of black paint now marks a wall near where the book burning took place as “Shar’a Biram”—Biram Avenue.
Many Mauritanians exist somewhere on a continuum between slavery and freedom. There is outright subjugation; there is indentured servitude, like the sharecropping that prevailed in Abeid’s village; and there is the freed slaves’ struggle with what is politely referred to as the “vestiges of slavery.” Because much of the economy is informal, those who find work are often exploited and poorly paid. “Women especially have few options for earning a living, and those without an education are mostly limited to petty trade in markets, perhaps opening a small boutique,” Erin Pettigrew, a scholar of African history at New York University, told me. “The especially poor and desperate will leave their children with family to venture into Nouakchott to find domestic work.” There are a few Haratin politicians, but the government remains dominated by the Beydanes. Last year, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a Haratin who was the president of the National Assembly, announced that “slavery is alive and well in Mauritania.” The government did not respond.
In the effort to gain political power, Abeid has sought allies among the country’s large population of Afro-Mauritanians, black Muslims who face systemic racism but who were not enslaved by the Beydanes. He argues that, like the Haratin, the Afro-Mauritanians have suffered for their dark skin. But much separates the two groups. Though Afro-Mauritanians struggle to obtain equal education, employment, and political representation, they look down on the Haratin because of their origins in slavery—and regard them with suspicion for their connection with the Beydanes. During the late eighties and early nineties, the government committed ethnic cleansing of some groups of Afro-Mauritanians, and used Haratin soldiers to kill, torture, or deport them.
The Haratin are equally suspicious; they point out that Afro-Mauritanians owned slaves themselves and ally with Beydane slave owners when it’s convenient. After centuries of forced integration, the Haratin share a language and, to an extent, a culture with their captors—and they are reluctant to disavow their link to the privileged class. Their cultural identity has not been predominantly forged by race. As a result, their activists have seen slavery as a problem distinct from racism. Abeid and his allies, though, see slavery and racism as inextricable—and an alliance between the two groups as politically irresistible. Together, they represent about seventy per cent of the population. A joint candidate would have a notably greater chance of winning power.
The government is evidently concerned by the prospect. While Abeid was in prison, the police told him that his greatest offense was promoting a union between Haratin and Afro-Mauritanians. There was no reason to unite, they argued; the Haratin were a special group in a special situation. He disagreed. “It is a link among all victims of slavery, racism, and discrimination,” he said. To his delight, the protests outside his prison cell marked the first time that Haratin and Afro-Mauritanians marched together.
The government’s measures against slavery have been largely symbolic, but it has been willing to acknowledge the lingering effects of slavery. Last year, it opened the National Solidarity Agency for the Fight Against the Vestiges of Slavery, for Integration, and for the Fight Against Poverty. When I met its director, Hamdi Ould Mahjoub, a slight Beydane with glasses, he suggested that freed slaves were no worse off than African-Americans. “I will give you an example,” he said. “Today in the United States, forty per cent of prisoners are black Americans. And the percentage of black Americans who are unemployed is not proportional to the percentage of black Americans in society. Those are the kinds of problem we have generation to generation.” He said that the agency was working on a program to help farmers and others to build clinics and improve access to water. “After the Civil War in the United States, the government promised to buy each slave family a mule and forty acres, but it did not,” he said. He began laughing. “There are donkeys everywhere we can use.”
I asked him how his organization planned to help current slaves. “If the agency has evidence of a case of slavery, any practice of slavery, we have the authority to be the advocate for the slave. But, since the agency was created, no cases have been reported to us,” he said. “Slavery as an institution, as something accepted by society, does not exist.”
Before IRA, Abeid said, “we were missing something in the fight against slavery.” Other antislavery groups issued statements and tried to persuade religious leaders to denounce slavery, with little success. “We needed something more open, with more action,” he said. “We set out to do a civil resistance, like the ones led by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. The other organizations respect the imams and the books that are the origin of slavery. We don’t respect them.”
In June, the country held Presidential elections, and Abeid decided to run. His critics, and even some allies, claimed that he was interested primarily in self-promotion. Abeid, for his part, saw the election as a forum to discuss slavery and racism. But most of the opposition pulled out, concerned about the possibility of government fraud, and, in any case, many blacks lacked the identity cards that were required to vote. Abeid came in second to Aziz, with nine per cent of the vote. He later filed an appeal with the Constitutional Council, claiming that in a fair election he would have got at least thirty-five per cent.
During the election, Abeid’s opponents accused him of fomenting racial division, and of endorsing violence. In one speech, he responded, “There are Beydanes in IRA. These Beydanes who are with us are not crazy. They are not stupid.” About the charges of violence, he said, “We went to jail several times, and the judges never had proof we were violent. They never saw stones, or guns, or knives.” But everyone knew that he had fought with a policeman. For many of his followers, it was part of his appeal. “It’s a generational difference,” Boubacar Messaoud, a co-founder of the antislavery group SOS Slaves, told me. Messaoud, a man in his late sixties with a snowy beard, is a former slave who went on to study engineering and architecture in Mali and in Moscow. SOS aids slaves who escape their masters, and petitions the government and the clergy to address the problem of slavery, but it stops short of aggressively confronting the authorities. Messaoud said that Abeid was leading young people who were driven by a sense of urgency. “They are impatient, and they want to act now against this unfair situation. SOS is pacifist. There is a conflict between IRA and the power. They have provided a new way of fighting the situation.” The organizations’ approaches do sometimes converge. In 2011, Messaoud and Abeid held a hunger strike in a Nouakchott police station until the police put a slave owner in jail. They have not been allowed inside a police station since.
“My fight is pacifist, but it was necessary to start with violence,” Abeid told me. “The Haratin have to take power. The Beydanes have not accepted that the Haratin will not put up with their illicit privilege forever.” If the Beydanes will not consent to political accommodation, he said, “the Haratin will one day say, ‘Stop,’ and there will be a confrontation. The price Haratin will have to pay is blood.”
In Nouakchott, slavery has become less openly accepted than it is in the countryside. Among friends, people will admit to owning slaves, but among strangers they often claim that the slaves are relatives. Still, the evidence of it is there. In a grocery store, I came across a Beydane family with a Haratin girl who fetched their purchases and then followed them to the car, where she sat in the back seat cradling the family’s child. In front of the opulent house of a prominent Beydane journalist, an activist pointed out a shack, which was empty except for a rudimentary mat. “That is the type of place where slaves sleep,” he told me. Wealthy Saudis sometimes buy Mauritanian slaves as child brides.
Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane, a political adviser to the African Union and a co-founder of SOS Slaves, owned a slave for much of his life; relatives gave him one as a child. “Slaves insured the comfort of the master and his family,” he told me. “They spared them the manual tasks that Beydane society considers repugnant or demeaning: fetching water, preparing food, herding cattle.” They also served more intimate roles, he said: “making the master laugh, massaging him, and insuring his sexual pleasure, if so desired. Some slaves who assimilated the attitudes and behavior of their masters eventually gained the respect and consideration of the family. The others were insulted, sometimes beaten.”
His slave is now legally free, but he works for relatives and still believes that he belongs to Ethmane. “The slaves who still serve my family are no longer constrained by force, only by economic necessity and, I would say, a very strong emotional link,” Ethmane said. “Masters and slaves live together, build relationships from generation to generation. Most children of masters were breast-fed and raised by slave nannies; they will later treat them as second mothers. It is a complex link that is very difficult to break.”
The Beydanes’ fear of a changing world is not unfounded. The Mauritanian social order would be upended if slavery were completely abolished, and Beydanes would have to perform their own menial tasks, or pay for labor on an unprecedented scale. “The former master needs therapy more than the former slave, because of trauma resulting from the rupture between his sense of racial superiority and the necessity of the modern world,” Ethmane said. In public, the Beydanes tend to echo the government’s line, he said: “Slavery no longer exists, and talk of it suggests manipulation by the West, an act of enmity toward Islam, or influence from the worldwide Jewish conspiracy.”
Nevertheless, some think that Mauritanian society is slowly evolving. People used to brag about having many slaves and camels, Mohamed Said Ould Hamody, a Haratin and a former Ambassador to the United States, told me. It is now taboo to say such a thing. “This is a very important phase,” he said. “People are saying this is the start of something.”
Not long ago, Abeid, dressed in an oversized bubu, was sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the upstairs salon in his house, which resembles an unfinished manor, with exposed foundations and missing walls. Activists and other men, mostly middle-aged and older, filtered in throughout the day, as many as twenty filling the small room. Some had come to ask for money, others for medicine or for advice. Some were just bored, with no work or school to involve them, and wanted the company of a lively group of activists. “When I wake up, the first thing I do is ask the boys”—his volunteer bodyguards—“how many people are waiting for me,” Abeid said.
“I feel frustrated because I don’t have enough time for my family, for my children, for myself,” he said. One day, eight people came to ask for money; he did not have enough to buy sugar for his tea. Donations are irregular, and there are never enough. “There are no funds—we have total need,” he said. Because the Mauritanian government refuses to allow IRA to register as a nongovernmental organization, it is impossible to solicit funding through grants. IRA has to rely on gifts from patrons, mainly government employees. The government has persuaded other activists to leave the movement, threatening them or winning them over with lucrative state jobs. “Sometimes I feel doubt,” he admitted. “I see the total power of the authorities—religious power, economic power, military power, security power, media power, all its power, against my organization—and I don’t even have money to buy soap. But it reassures me when I see people resist.” I asked whether former slaves, who mostly live in poverty, could be enslaved again. “We have never seen a single slave go back to slavery after he is free,” he said. “When we free them, at least they sleep when they want to sleep. No one rapes them. No one beats them. If they work with someone, he will pay them.”
Several slaves that Abeid freed live in his house. I found one of them, Moctar Ould Sidi, playing soccer at sunset in a field nearby. At fifteen, he has hazel eyes and bright, reddish skin, and he was wearing athletic clothes and shoes. “My mother was a slave, I was a slave,” he told me. In the house of a wealthy family in Nouakchott, Sidi cleaned, washed the dishes, ran errands. He had no name in that house; he was called abd, or slave. He slept by himself in a tent in front of the house. “I didn’t have any right to study, any right to sleep when I want, any right to play when I want,” he said. I asked him if the family members ever hit him. “Always, always, always,” he said. Sidi recalled that his masters were generous with their children. “They gave them money, they gave them good clothes, and they sent them to school,” he said. “They never gave me that.” Instead, they berated and beat his mother in his presence. Still, she pressed him to stay, believing it was his best option.
When he was twelve, a friend of his mother’s took him to an IRArepresentative, who led him to Abeid. He and Abeid went to the police station together. “My mother was angry at me when I left my masters,” Sidi recalled. “To her, she is a slave, I am a slave, and we have to be slaves—she did not understand.” Their relationship is slowly improving. His mother tells him that his three siblings are not slaves, and that they have left the house. Sidi was skeptical, but he seemed certain of his own fate. “Now I feel that I am a person,” he said. “Because before that I was not a person. I was nothing.”