Middle aged black man, bald, in grey sweater, looking at the camera like he's a bit sad and a bit let down

Hassan Fall

“Freedom is indivisible,” John Kennedy once remarked. “When one man is enslaved, none are free. In Columbus, I had the opportunity to interview four men who have been directly affected by a system of slavery and brutal racism in the West African country of Mauritania. Three are either seeking or have received asylum because of slavery.  The fourth is an abolitionist, who is running for president of Mauritania, Biram Abeid. Ahmed Tidiane raises money to support ex-slaves. Omar Wagne risked his freedom and even his life to register those recently freed from bondage, so they could vote and send their children to school.  Hassan Fall fought to save his aunt from the punishing bonds of slavery. Ahmed, Omar and Hassan have sought asylum in the U. S. Together, these four men have risked their lives to tell a story that highlights the repressive and brutal system now operating against Black Africans in Mauritania, but they also tell a story of hope for a tribe of slaves and ex-slaves.

In 2015 Biram Abied arrested in Mauritania on charges of rebellion and using violence against the police, when in fact he was peacefully protesting in favor of land rights for all blacks and for the Haratin in particular, a tribe of current and former slaves, who are often referred to as Black Moors, whereas, people of an Arab / Berber heritage are called White Moors. Abied’s appeal of the original judgment was unsuccessful. As Amnesty International explained, “ironically, just days before the appeal trial . . . Mauritania adopted a law defining slavery as a crime against humanity. It was hoped that this would signal a move toward promoting human rights, but yesterday’s decision has dashed those hopes.”

Abeid is the head of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA). Mauritania was the last country in the world to declare slavery illegal in 1981. However, no laws were written to enforce that dictum until 2007, and since then few slave holders have been prosecuted.  In the Eleventh Century, Arabs invaded this West African region, and during the next 500 years they would struggle to overcome the native population. These Arab peoples gradually became the upper class, producing a tradition of domestic and agricultural slavery in Mauritania, which has proven persistent. According to Kevin Bates and the Global Slavery Index, “Mauritania has the highest population of slaves in the world.” Accounts of how many people suffer enslavement vary. The Global Slavery Index estimates that 43,000 people, or a little over 1% of the population, are enslaved, whereas SOS Slavery claims that the population of slaves in Mauritania may be as high 600,000 people, or 17%. Biram Abeid himself asserts that 20% of the population is enslaved. It is worth pointing out that the U.S. State Department Report on Human Trafficking for 2016 asserts of Mauritania that

adults and children from traditional slave castes in the Black Moor and Afro-Mauritanian Communities are subjected to hereditary slavery related practices rooted in ancestral master-slave relationships. Although reliable data on the total number of slaves does not exist, local and international experts agree hereditary slavery continues to affect a significant portion of the population . . .

Of course, the inability to achieve accurate numbers itself tells a story, because if a country denies the rights of citizenship to slaves and former slaves, it relieves itself of its responsibility to count them. The official government position is that slavery does not exist in Mauritania. It is a phenomenon of the past, they claim.

When I met Biram Abeid in the home of Ahmed Tidiane, he was relaxed, lounging on the couch, admiring his host’s children. Ahmed is Coordinator for IRA Ohio, a sister organization to the one Abeid runs in his home country. Abeid came to Columbus to meet with and inspire members of the Mauritanian Diaspora, like Ahmed, as well as to speak with local legislative leaders, such as U.S. Congresswoman, Joyce Beatty. Abeid is a large and intelligent man, whose body tenses when he begins to speak about forced labor in his home country: “Oriental Islamic Slavery has not been as demystified as Western Slavery. Western Slavery receives more attention,” he opines, “even though oriental slavery has a longer and broader history.”  Drinking strong tea from a shot glass, Abeid asserts that lighter-skinned Mauritanian Arabs “define themselves as white as a sign of superiority.”

This presidential candidate’s attitude toward religion is complex and controversial. Biram Abeid is Muslim and believes that Islam is a religion of equality and brotherhood. Yet, sitting in a Muslim household, practicing Islamic rituals of prayer and greeting, Abeid accuses the light-skinned Mauritanians of using “Islam to create a racial ideology—to create a code of slavery.” Ironically, the country’s current president says that talk of slavery in Mauritania is simply one aspect of the West’s anti-Islamic rhetoric.

I asked Abeid to cite verses of the Qur’an that white Mauritanians use to oppress the Haratin people. Instead he told me a story: Abeid explained that when he was eight years old, his family lived near White Moors, who owned slaves. Because these people were hungry and poorly dressed, Biram Abeid’s mother felt sorry for them. Once a slave named Mohamed asked Biram’s mother for food. After he ate, Mohamed fell asleep. Unfortunately, Mohamed’s master soon appeared and began beating his slave. As Abeid recalls the event, Mohamed was a large, strong man, but his master was a skinny person, who appeared weak to the boy. “Mother, why did Mohamed let himself be beaten?” the child asked; “why didn’t he fight back?” “Because he is shackled,” his mother replied. “But I didn’t see any chains,” the boy observed. “The shackles are in his mind,” his mother said. According to Abeid, these shackles represent a misuse of Islam. Mohamed had been taught that violating the social order is evil and that both Allah and the community would punish him if he struck back at his master or tried to gain his freedom.

Moreover, poverty is so rampant, Abeid points out, that ex-slaves have few alternative methods to support themselves. CNN’s 2012 documentary, entitled “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” demonstrates the very human evidence of this fact, interviewing slaves who dare not leave their masters, because they would have no means of feeding themselves. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 20% of Mauritanians live on less than $1.25 a day.

Abeid asserts that black slaves are obligated to work with no wages and no civil rights. Women and girls are raped systematically. Moreover, the Mauritanian government has recently created a civil registry, forcing black people to prove their citizenship. Lacking that proof, people become stateless in their own country. As we shall soon see, ex-slaves without documents find it difficult to prove their citizenship.

Biram Abeid describes a system of apartheid in his home country, a system in which even blacks who are not slaves are kept out of universities and prevented from obtaining meaningful employment. People of Arab descent own all the property, according to Abeid, and all the mining licenses, such as licenses to explore for gold and petroleum. Mauritania has large iron ore deposits, which account for about 50% of its exports. The mines are owned by Arabs. In addition, lighter-skinned people maintain all the parliamentary power. They create special Schools of Excellence for only their children, which black children cannot attend.

Abeid argues that “only in Mauritania is a slavery code written as the first source of law.” Moreover, contrary to the claims of the current President, Abeid asserts that “Mauritania has made laws not to eradicate slavery but to maintain it.” He means by this that Mauritania passes laws, which are not enforced, only to appease the United Nations and Western countries, a move that seems not to be working, because Abeid, and his abolitionist movement, IRA Mauritania, received the United Nations’ Human Rights Prize in 2013, and in 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry presented Abeid with the “Trafficking in Persons Heroes Award.” Apparently, the West isn’t quite buying President Aziz’s claim that slavery no longer exists in Mauritania, nor his accusation that Abeid’s IRA movement is “spreading racist propaganda.”

Nevertheless, President Aziz remains an ally of the West in its fight against people it believes to be Islamic Terrorists in the Sahara Desert. The Mauritanian government receives financial support for that effort, which Abeid believes should be withdrawn. Indeed, in October of 2017, the Trump administration pledged 60 million dollars to Africa’s Sahel region, which includes Mauritania, to fight international terrorism. Abeid asserts that the Aziz government not only accepts US funds for the international war on terror, but it also receives kickbacks from the terrorist organizations it is being paid to prosecute.

I asked Abeid if he thought running for the President of Mauritania was dangerous. He grew quiet for a moment before answering in the affirmative. He pointed out that he has been imprisoned three times, and he has been sentenced to death. He and the members of his organization have been beaten and tortured.  “Yes,” he answered, “running as an abolitionist in Mauritania is dangerous.”

When he ran for president in 2014, Abeid garnered only 8.67% of the vote. Nevertheless, he sincerely believes he has a reasonable chance of achieving the presidency of Mauritania when the current President’s term expires in 2019. He thinks that a significant portion of the white population realizes that the practice of slavery is anachronistic and will prove to be detrimental to the economic future of Mauritania. If Mauritania maintains its apartheid system, Abeid believes it will face boycotts and economic isolation just as South Africa did.

Biram’s anti-slavery movement is supported by IRA Ohio, an organization made up largely of the Mauritanian Diaspora living in the midwestern state. When Abeid and IRA Mauritania successfully frees a slave, IRA Ohio collects food, clothing and other supplies to support the person, who might otherwise be forced to return to her master for food. In 2010, Biram and IRA Mauritania successfully petitioned to free two female slaves. He protested outside a slave owner’s home. When officers came, Biram head-butted a policeman because he wanted to be arrested. The more important fact, however, was that the slave owner was imprisoned for nine days. This was the first time in Mauritanian history when someone was actually imprisoned for owning slaves. Recently, Abeid’s activism forced the freeing of twenty slaves. These people had to be immediately separated from their former masters, but they had no way of supporting themselves on their own. Biram’s only solution was to bring them to his own home. So Ahmed Tidiane and IRA Ohio raised money for food and medical supplies to maintain these people in their new found freedom.

IRA Ohio also employs its fundraising capacity to support activists in Mauritania, who are imprisoned for protesting slavery. During the last such protest in 2017, Ahmed explains that 13 protesters were locked up. In this case, IRA Ohio sent food to the families, while their breadwinners were imprisoned. They also sent money for the legal support of the prisoners.

Biram Abied speaks of Mauritania as being a nation that practices its own version of apartheid and explains that the newly-instituted civil registry prevents blacks and ex-slaves from realizing their civil rights. Omar Wagne, a member of the Mauritanian Diaspora living in Central Ohio, became intimately aware of how the intense system of national discrimination operates in his home country, and how former slaves are denied their civil rights by being denied entry into the civil registry and therefore citizenship in the country of their birth.

Omar studied computer engineering in Morocco, because he wasn’t permitted to study in Mauritania. Upon graduation, Omar’s student visa expired, so he returned home, where the department of civil registry asked that he and others applying for positions in computer engineering sit for a test. According to Omar, he passed the test with the highest distinction. Only 18 people passed this national test. However, 50 white Moors were recruited, and were given the open positions.

Instead, Omar was given a data entry position in Dar-Naim, a suburb of Nouakchott, the capital city. His job was to enroll citizens in the central registry Abeid described earlier. However, Omar noticed that dark-skinned people were having a harder time registering as citizens. He knew that if the government could prevent a person from registering, then he or she would not be able to vote. When a black person tries to enroll in the civil registry, he or she is asked to provide their parents’ and often their grandparents’ birth certificates, documents which slaves were never given. Whites, however, simply had to offer a witness, who could testify to their citizenship. Citizenship forms have changed several times in Mauritanian history through the process of many censuses. Each change caused black people to somehow to fall out of the registry.

Because he was actively helping Black Moors register as citizens, Omar was transferred to Mal, as a kind of demotion. Mal is a city with a mixture of White Moors and Haratins. In Mal, the situation was worse than in Dar-Naim, because in Mal, most Haratins were living on their masters’ estates. Unfortunately, the slaves’ civil documents were also kept in their masters’ homes. Moreover, slave women had many children, who were often the offspring of their masters, and who in turn had no documentation. To enroll as a citizen, a Haratin would have to provide the birth certificates of both his father and mother, but slave masters are almost universally reluctant to acknowledge the children they fathered with slaves.

To overcome this problem, Omar tried to trick the computer system by registering the mother as both mother and father for many slaves. In time, Omar’s hoax was discovered. He was arrested and taken to a detention center in Aleg. Finally, Omar was transferred to the judicial police in the capital, where he was tortured. The police wanted Omar to admit that he was registering foreigners as citizens, so they would have an excuse to remove people from the registry. He refused. After four months of enduring torture and harsh conditions, a judge found Omar not guilty. The judge also ruled that Omar should be allowed to return to work. However, that privilege was never allowed.

The fact that Omar now works as a computer technician for Zenith Academy in Ohio indicates the way in which endemic and deep-seated racism prevents Mauritania from harnessing the full talent of all its citizens.

For another perspective on racism and slavery in Mauritania, I looked up Hassan Fall, who has yet to hear the result of his asylum hearing in the US. Hassan’s point of view is immediate and compelling. “America is a free country,” Hassan declares in a busy, High Street, coffee shop. “I can go here, and everyone treats me the same. When I am driving, no one pulls me over because of my tribe or the color of my skin.” Hassan is Haratin, so like 40% of the Mauritanian population, he is a descendant of slaves. The scars on Hassan’s forehead are hard not to notice. He also points to the cigarette burns on his arm and the missing teeth that were knocked out of his mouth when he was arrested. The last time Hassan was incarcerated, he was trying to save his aunt from being re-enslaved.

Though a descendant of slaves, Hassan has not experienced slavery himself. In Mauritania, slavery is matrilineal.  Hassan’s mother was free, but his aunt, Hassan’s mother’s half-sister, was born into slavery. As Hassan tells the story, his aunt, Mboinka mint Soueilim, was freed by her former master. When that master died, however, his son, Mohamed Abdulahi declared that she was still his slave and that whatever money and property she had acquired belonged to him. When Hassan protested, he was thrown in jail. This was the second time Hassan was arrested. “You think what we did to you before was bad,” the head policeman threatened, “wait until you see what we do now.” He was beaten badly. During the three days he was there, his breakfast was one slice of bread and a glass of water, and he was forced to clean the entire police station every day, including the bathrooms.

The first time Hassan was arrested was in 2013, the year Biram Dah Abeid was awarded the United Nations’ Human Rights Prize. Hundreds of people came to greet Abeid at the Nouakchott Airport in celebration of the recognition he had received. During the festivities, unmarked cars drove up, and the police inside them began arresting people in what seemed a random pattern. When Hassan was pushed into a police truck, his forehead was badly cut. During his four days in jail, Hassan was beaten and tortured. An officer with a ring on his right hand hit Hassan with a hook to the jaw, knocking out five of his teeth. His arms were burned with cigarettes, and he was never allowed to sleep. Because of the poor conditions in prison, he became infected with malaria. Upon release, his mother took Hassan to the hospital, where staff refused to treat him. With no alternative, she took him to a clinic, which was more expensive than the hospital, where he recuperated for ten days.

After his second arrest, Hassan was put on parole and forced to report to the police station twice a month. Hassan was regularly threatened during these parole visits. After months of reporting, Hassan began fearing for his life, so he fled to the United States. “I’m going to miss you, but if you stay here, you will die,” his mother said, as she put him on the plane. Currently, Hassan is working as a Senior Team Lead at Ryder Logistics, so he is able to send money to his wife and two children, while he awaits his asylum hearing. Though Hassan had to flee Mauritania, his IRA colleagues defended his aunt. She has passed away now, but she was free when she died, a fact that pleases Hassan immensely.  Hassan hopes he will be granted asylum soon, so he will be able to re-unite with his wife and children in the United States.

Hassan Fall, Ahmed Tidiane, Omar Wagne and Biram Abeid are indicative of the way people in Mauritania and in the diaspora are actively fighting back against the idea, as Abraham Lincoln put it, that some people can reconcile themselves “to wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”  I am fascinated that a century and a half after Abraham Lincoln, the birth of the Republican Party and the Emancipation Proclamation, America is host to another abolitionist movement trying to end slavery in the Mother Continent of Africa.

Doug Rutledgehas a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away, (Abdi Roble, Photographer) published by the University of Minnesota Press. He is also the author of “The Infrastructure of Migration and the Migration Regime: Human Rights, Race and the Somali Struggle to Flee Violence,” which appeared in Race / Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, 2010. Doug also narrated and helped produce the film, Nasro’s Journey, directed by Tariq Tarey, which aired on WOSU, Columbus’ Public Television Station in 2011, as part of the Women, War and Resettlement Series. His poem, "The Quiet Violin," has recently been awarded the Second Runner-Up place in the 2015 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize appeared in Southern Humanities Review.  In 2017, Doug partnered with Tariq Tarey on the exhibition Bhutanese-Nepali Neighbors, which was on display at the Ohio History Connection.

rut.doug@gmail.com; 614-499-0899; @rut.doug

Biram Abeid

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