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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.
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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.
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