NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Born a slave, like his entire family, Matalla Mbreik toiled from dawn to dusk selling water and tending his master’s flocks on the lonely fringes of the Saharan desert, until he could take no more.
“I still have the scars from my beatings, like my mother and sisters,” said the 32-year-old Mauritanian, staring at the floor, dressed in flowing pale-blue embroidered robes. “All they gave us to eat were leftovers.”
After years spent dreaming of escape, Mbreik seized his chance two months ago when a Mauritanian army truck passed him searching for an oasis in the desert.
“I told them to shoot me rather than take me back to my master,” said Mbreik, red-faced with shame, sitting in the office of anti-slavery group SOS-Slave.
Although banned by law in 1980, slavery in Mauritania has persisted, perpetuated by poverty and rigid customs. Authorities long denied its existence but campaigners estimate there are still hundreds of thousands of slaves among the 3 million population — the highest ratio in the world.
Chattel slavery, where one person is the property of another, has existed in the impoverished West African country for more than 800 years, since Arab-Berber raiders swept across the Sahara to subjugate black African tribes.
Traditionally, members of the haratin slave caste must marry who their masters say and can be given as gifts, bought and sold, or presented to the poor as charity.
Children are often separated from their mothers and sent to work in other homes. Girls frequently suffer sexual abuse.
“Westerners think of slaves as people in chains,” said Boubacar Messaoud, head of SOS-Slave. “Slaves here have no need to be chained up because they are educated in submission ... They are chained in their heads.”
Just as Christianity was once used to justify the transatlantic slave trade, rights workers say many Muslim teachers, or marabouts, in Mauritania preach subservience. “Paradise under your master’s foot” is a Mauritanian saying.
“If my master had been kind, I would not have left him,” said Mbreik, tightly gripping the edge of the sofa.
The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on December 2 marks the landmark 1949 U.N. convention against people trafficking. Anti-slavery campaigners estimate there are still more than 25 million slaves worldwide.
Slavery remains rife in many parts of West Africa’s arid Sahel region, such as neighboring Mali or Niger, ranked among the poorest countries in the world.
“We are a country of castes, like all the other countries in this region,” said Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, the head of Mauritania’s military junta which seized power last year, vowing a transition to democracy after decades of dictatorship.
“But Mauritania, more than other countries, is addressing this problem of castes and their consequences on post-independence society,” he said, pointing to the adoption of international conventions and efforts to educate former slaves.
SOS-Slave’s Messaoud says the situation has improved since the junta ousted former president Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya in a bloodless coup. He hopes the transition to presidential elections in March will bring freedom for all Mauritanians.
“We are optimistic because Mauritania’s rulers now acknowledge that slavery exists,” said Messaoud, who was jailed several times under Taya’s regime. “If the elections are transparent that will be a real victory.”
With many escaped slaves unwilling or too ashamed to prosecute their former masters, SOS-Slave is campaigning for the right to bring third party prosecutions against slave-owners.
“Mauritania has never convicted anyone for practicing slavery. That would mark the start of recognition that slavery is no longer acceptable,” he said. “The laws forbid slavery, but they are new and traditions are very old.”
Former slave owner Mohamed Salem Ould Hamada’s family willingly freed all their slaves in 1991. He now condemns slavery as unjust but understands how the ancient practice came to exist.
“In our religion slavery is a bad thing,” said Hamada, citing the Koranic story of Yusuf sold into slavery in Egypt. “It exists because there are problems which are worse: poverty.”
“In many cases, it is the slaves themselves who want the procedure,” said Hamada. “While problems of poverty continue to exist, slavery will continue.”
In a poor shanty-town near Nouakchott’s airport, where corrugated iron shacks dot the sand dunes and goats nibble at piles of rubbish, SOS-Slave has helped Aichana start a new life.
Children in torn rags play beside the “street”, marked by car tyres planted in the sand, outside the small shop which she established with money from the group.
“Before when I worked, it was never for me — even if I earned money I had to give it to my master,” Aichana said, sat inside on a red mat beside shelves stacked with couscous, soap, dry biscuits, pasta, and condensed milk.
“When I was young, I thought life was like that, but as I grew older and saw how other people lived, I felt ashamed,” she added, as flies settled on her face in the morning haze.
“Now, all I want is to be able to earn my living honestly ... for my children to go to school, for them to be honest and grow up like normal people.”