Bought And Sold

OP-ED New York Times, July 13, 1994
by Charles Jacobs and Mohamed Athie

Last month, Amnesty International’s American branch decided it was time to abolish slavery. Presented with evidence of human bondage in North Africa, the members voted to add to an already crowded mandate the emancipation of chattel slaves.

It may be hard to believe that in 1994 a new abolitionist movement is needed. Today, in the former French colony of Mauritania, where slavery was ended – on paper – in 1980, the State Department estimates that 90,000 blacks still live as the property of Berbers. Perhaps 300,000 freed slaves continue to serve their former masters because of psychological or economic dependence.

Black Africans in Mauritania were converted to Islam more than 100 years ago, but while the Koran forbids the enslavement of fellow Muslims, in this country race outranks religious doctrine. These people are chattel: used for labor, sex, and breeding. They may be exchanged for camels, trucks, guns or money. Their children are the property of the master.

A 1990 Human Rights Watch/Africa report said that in Mauritania routine punishments for the slightest fault include beatings, denial of food and prolonged exposure to the sun, with hands and feet tied together. “Serious” infringement of the master’s rule can mean prolonged tortures known as “the camel treatment,” the “insect treatment” and “burning coals” – none of which is fit to describe in a family newspaper.

To the east, in the Sudan, slavery is making a comeback, the result of a 12-year-old war waged by the Muslim north against the black Christian and animist south. Arab militias, armed by the Government, raid villages, mostly those of the Dinka tribe, shoot the men and enslave the women and children. These are kept as personal property or marched north and sold.

Many of the children are auctioned off. Gaspar Biro, a United Nations human rights monitor, returned from the Sudan in March reporting that abducted children are often sent to camps that become 20th-century slave markets. The price varies with supply. In 1989, a woman or child could be bought for $90. In 1990, as the raids increased, the price fell to $15. Not only are their bodies in bondage but also they are stripped of their cultural, religious and personal identities.

An investigator from Anti-Slavery International interviewed Abuk Thuc Akwar, a 13-year-old girl who, along with 24 other children, was captured by the militia, marched north and given to a farmer. “Throughout the day she worked in his sorhum fields and at night in his bed. During the march she was raped and called a black donkey,” the investigator wrote in a 1990 report. The girl escaped with the help of the master’s jealous wife.

Another report described Kon, a 13-year-old boy who was abducted by Arab nomads and taken to a merchant’s house. There he found several Dinka men hobbling, their Achilles’ tendons cut because they refused to become Muslims. Threatened with the same treatment, the boy converted. After six months, he escaped. Kon was lucky: slaves caught fleeing are often castrated or branded like cattle.

Human rights groups are the first to admit their failure to organized support for Africa’s slaves. Anti-Slavery International is courageous but small and underfinanced. People at Africa Watch privately despair about Mauritania: “No one is interested in a French speaking country of only two million and no oil,” said one researcher.

Most distressing is the silence of the American media whose reports counted for so much in the battle to end apartheid in South Africa, and of mainstream African-American organizations. The Congressional Black Caucus has yet to take a stand on the issue. Does freedom count for more in Johannesburg than in Nouakchott and Khartoum?

We hear of “compassion fatigue,” especially when it comes to Africa, but it is hard to believe that people can be aware that slavery is alive and well and turn away. Far better to think that as the plight of slaves becomes known here, Americans will once again speak out in the name of human freedom.

Charles Jacobs is research director of the American Anti-Slavery Group based in Somerville, Massachusetts. Mohamed Athie, is a former consular official from Mauritania. He is a practicing Muslim and now heads the International Coalition Against Chattel Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan.