"I was born a slave" - Matalla tells his story

NOUAKCHOTT Wed Mar 21, 2007 3:23am EDT

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NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Matalla is an adult former slave who escaped two years ago from his nomadic Arab masters in the deserts of northeast Mauritania. He does not know his last name or his age, but appears to be in his 30s or 40s.

A timid, soft-spoken man, who keeps his gaze lowered, he talked to Reuters at the Nouakchott headquarters of SOS-Esclaves (SOS-Slaves), a local anti-slavery group. He spoke in Hassaniya, an Arabic dialect used in Mauritania, via a translator.

Here is his story:

"I was born a slave.

"My masters were a warrior group of Arabs, the Reguibat. I worked as a shepherd of camels. When I was little, I looked after goats. I also made charcoal.

"As far as I know ... all my family, all my ancestors were slaves of that group ... My aunt, my brothers are still slaves with them. I've had no contact with them (since I escaped).

"The life was difficult and the fact that I was a slave made it even more so."

"I was never given any breakfast or lunch. I was allowed to eat the leftovers from the evening meal.

"We were sometimes tied up when we lost animals.

"I have a scar here (he points to his cheekbone, under his right eye), from where they hit me with a stick. It was my masters' children who did it, when I lost one of the animals.

"When I became conscious of what my situation was, I thought of the best way to escape without being caught. I knew that if I didn't find that way, I could be killed."

He said that one day two years ago, out herding his masters' camels in the desert, he came across a group of Mauritanian soldiers in a vehicle who were looking for milk to drink. Their leader was a Haratine, a descendant of slaves.

"The head of the group asked me about my situation. He asked 'Do you want to stay with your masters or not? I will help you if you want to leave.'

"I said, 'Yes, I want to go,' as long as they could guarantee my safety.

"We went to get the milk. Then we left in the car. My masters were very angry.

"I told the soldiers that my masters tortured me, that they beat my sisters and brothers. I said 'I'd rather you shoot me, than be left here.'"

Question: How many slaves did your masters have?

Answer: They have many more than can be counted.

Question: How do you feel about being free?

Answer: The difference is that I am responsible for myself and don't have to put up with insults. I feel completely free. I do odd jobs. I want to work.

Question: Do you forgive your former masters?

Answer: No ... they are bad people. I wouldn't go back. I think of the members of my family who are still there.

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