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A slave is a person perverted into a thing,” wrote Coleridge as the movement to stop the African slave trade was gaining momentum early in the nineteenth century. “Slavery, therefore, is not so properly a deviation from justice as an absolute subversion of all morality.”

Slavery had been abolished within the British Isles before the end of the American Revolution, but sugar planters, brokers, and others still benefited from the international trade in human beings and formed a powerful lobby against abolition. To express their outrage, people like Coleridge and Wordsworth used honey rather than sugar to sweeten their tea.

It may have seemed a silly gesture, but it had popular appeal and cumulative impact. Gradually, the Western world brought an end to slavery—in Europe by moral suasion, in America by fire and sword. In the 1980s, artists and athletes opposed apartheid with a cultural boycott against South Africa, and it is not hard to imagine Wordsworth and Coleridge smiling down approvingly from their celestial teacups as Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne sang, “I ain’t gonna play Sun City,” South Africa’s showpiece entertainment complex. Such gestures too had effect, and apartheid fell to the political realities of the communications revolution and the Cold War’s end.

But slavery lives on, in all its ancient horror, though politicians, artists, and the media have little to say about it. In the West African nation of Mauritania, between eighty and ninety thousand human beings are owned outright by other people, according to the American Anti-Slavery Group, Human Rights Watch/Africa, and the U.S. State Department. Most are black tribesmen owned by the dark-skinned Berbers known as the Moors. Across the continent, in the war-ravaged Sudan, chattel slaves number in the tens of thousands, according to Christian Solidarity International. Most are the children of black Christian and animist villagers, taken in raids by their traditional Arab enemies, now formed into militia by the Muslim government in Khartoum in its war to subdue the south.

“Nothing has changed in the way of life of these Arab groups for the past hundred years,” said a report written in 1995 by the Comboni Fathers, Catholic missionaries in the Sudan. “Their only progress has consisted in the provision of large amounts of modern weapons and up-to-date transportation. The time of long lines of enchained slaves marching north is over. Now truckloads of children are seen moving in the same traditional direction.”

These modern slaves often serve as maids or cooks, or as farm laborers or cattle herders. Many were taken too young to remember their homes or families. Some who have tried to escape have been branded, or have had their Achilles tendons cut; some have been castrated. Many, both male and female, are regularly raped.

These facts are well known to Western governments and to the United Nations, and reports on slavery appear in the Western media from time to time. Yet they have failed to ignite the popular indignation that fired the abolitionist and anti-apartheid movements.

“There are two key elements to the story of slavery in the twentieth century,” says Charles Jacobs, Research Director of the American Anti-Slavery Group. “One is that it exists at all. The other is what I call the scandal of silence—the fact that people don’t want to even acknowledge that it exists.”

Cultural relativity is at least partly behind this reticence. The quarrels in Mauritania and the Sudan are obscure. They do not occur against the backdrop of economic modernization, as in South Africa, nor do they mirror the black-white tensions of the apartheid battle, which struck Americans so close to home. Television may have turned the world into a global village, but all politics remains local politics, and in New York and Washington the problem of slavery in Mauritania and the Sudan has become entangled in a domestic dust-up involving black Christians and Muslims and Jews. What politician, artist, or political activist wants to get involved in that?

“Practically every member of the anti-apartheid coalition is AWOL in this battle,” Mr. Jacobs said during a recent interview in his home in Newton, Mass., which serves as the headquarters of the American Anti-Slavery Group. Mr. Jacobs, an international management consultant, has joined forces with Mohammed Athie, a former Mauritanian diplomat who is now a political refugee and the group’s Executive Director. “We wanted to put together a new coalition,” Mr. Jacobs said. “We wanted to reignite the anti-apartheid struggle and we failed.”

He said that when the group first contacted white liberal leaders with evidence of a modern slave trade, they invariably deferred to the black civil rights establishment. This seemed sensible enough. “After all,” said Mr. Jacobs, “who but the descendants of slaves would be the logical choice to lead this fight?” But when the group approached the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the NAACP, and the Congressional Black Caucus, Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Athie found themselves handicapped by a popular conceit—the notion that all black people everywhere should speak with one voice. Black unity, a useful weapon during the civil rights battles of the 1960s and 1970s, suddenly became an obstacle. The Rev. Jackson did not want to get involved in an issue that seemed anti-Arab, Mr. Jacobs said he was told through a spokesman. Initially, the response of other members of the mainstream black leadership was also tepid. They were loathe to get into a fracas with the Nation of Islam, which has dismissed the allegations of slavery as propaganda, an attempt by Jews in the United States to discredit Arabs and Islam. In short, said Mr. Jacobs, “no bad white guys, no news.”

But two black newspapers in New York City did take up the call. Samuel Cotton of the City Sun and William Pleasant of the Daily Challenge each wrote a series on the slave trade that criticized the Nation of Islam for organizing tours to Khartoum for black journalists subsidized by the Sudanese government. After an anti-slavery conference in New York City last May, the NAACP adopted a resolution condemning slavery in the Sudan and Mauritania, and Representative Donald Payne of New Jersey, chairman of the Black Caucus, issued a statement of support for the abolitionists.

But the Nation of Islam charged that the American Anti-Slavery Group is a front for Zionist propaganda. Abdul Akbar Muhammad, the Nation of Islam’s spokesman for international affairs, denied that the Sudanese government is engaged in the slave trade and questioned the group’s motives in publicizing human rights abuses in Mauritania. “It is well known that the blacks in Mauritania suffer under much racism and mistreatment by the rulers of this North African country,” he wrote. But Mr. Jacobs “is using this suffering to judge a religion and not the people of the religion. It is also an attempt to curtail and divide an already divided black community on the issue of Islam and the influence of the Nation of Islam under Minister Louis Farrakhan.”

Mr. Athie, a Muslim, says the religious issue is being used as just another tool by the Mauritanian government to cement its control.

Indeed, Mauritania has been as forceful in condemning slavery as any civil rights activist might wish. At least three times in this century slavery has been outlawed there, first by the French, who banned it in 1905, then under the new Constitution drawn up after independence in 1960, and a third time in 1980, under the government of President Mohammed Khouna Ould Haidallah. Today, the country of two million people is said to contain the world’s largest population of chattel slaves. Depending upon age and physical condition, they are reportedly sold for as little as $15, given as gifts, or traded for cars, camels, or other goods.

The UN Convention on Slavery defines a slave as anyone who is unable to withdraw his labor voluntarily. This broad definition includes economic slaves—child workers, serfs, and indentured laborers—and exists in various forms throughout much of Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

Human rights organizations estimate that some three hundred thousand people live in this condition in Mauritania. Technically, they are not chattel slaves, but economically and psychologically they belong to other people. Like Mauritania’s ninety thousand chattel slaves, and the slaves of the Sudan, they are prisoners of history. Over the centuries, the slave trade became so ingrained that even Charles George Gordon, the British general who became a Victorian hero trying to suppress it, is said to have remarked, “When you have got the ink that has soaked into blotting-paper out of it, then slavery will cease in these lands.”

Slavery in Mauritania, as in the Sudan, breaks down along racial and tribal lines. Mauritania is ruled by northerners, people of Arab-Berber stock known as Beydanes, or “white men,” who make up a third of the population. Tribes of free blacks—the largest being the Halpularr—also constitute a third of the country’s people. Last and least are the Haratines, for whom slavery has become institutionalized. Many Haratine women conceive children with their Beydane masters, and these children are often raised to become slaves themselves. But not all Haratines are slaves. According to Human Rights Watch/Africa, many have held high government positions even though they might have had close relatives who are in bondage.

Tensions between the Beydanes and blacks, which had been rising since independence, came to a head in 1989 when a border dispute with neighboring Senegal unleashed ethnic violence along the river dividing the two countries. The violence spread into the interior. The Beydanes killed or deported thousands of blacks to Senegal. At the same time, Senegal deported Mauritanians.

When the bloodshed erupted, Mohammed Athie, who is a Halpularr, was serving as a political officer with the Mauritanian embassy in Washington. He was ordered to return to Mauritania, but learned that the government of Lieut. Col. Maaouiya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, who had seized power in a coup in December 1984, was conducting a purge. Mr. Athie sought political asylum in the United States. Today, he is one of thousands of refugees who cannot return.

The Mauritanian government denies that the country’s blacks are oppressed or that slavery exists, but it will not allow human rights organizations to enter the country. Observers who have entered the country report that the slave trade is discreet.

“They are very subtle now in the ways of selling the people,” said Mr. Athie. Two men might meet and negotiate, and an individual will change hands. Sometimes slaves are taken out of the country, he said, adding, “We do know that some black people from Mauritania are being sent to the Gulf countries.”

Fugitive slaves report that conditions are worst in the rural areas, where most of the slaves live. “There it is ancient Mauritania,” one slave told Human Rights Watch/Africa. “Slaves don’t even know they have rights, and they don’t know anything about emancipation. I had heard of the abolition, but it had no practical effect on my life.”

The Sudanese government also denies that slavery exists, although Khartoum acknowledges that its Arab militia has been holding hostages until the conflict is settled. But the Comboni Fathers and other Christian groups say that the government of Lieut. Gen. Omar Hassan al Bashir, who took power in a coup in 1989, is forcing the southern blacks of the Dinka and Nuba tribes to convert and is trying to transform the country into an Islamic state. The north and south have been fighting since 1983, and the war has killed one and a half million of the country’s twenty-seven million people. Between six and eight million, mostly blacks, have lost their homes. Christian groups say government-backed militia and troops raid black villages, burning huts, killing men, stealing livestock, and taking women and children into captivity.

“My mother, my two children, two of my sister’s children, and I were at home when the Arabs came,” Abuk Marou Keer of Nyamlell, a blind, twenty-five-year-old woman, told Christian Solidarity International last year. “My mother tried to hide some of our belongings,” she said, “and then we ran toward the river.”

“We were captured at the river bank. All the captives were gathered together and we were forced to walk, carrying the property looted by our captors. We were beaten when captured and from time to time en route to our destination—an agricultural labor camp at a place called Araith, eighteen miles to the north. On the way, four male captives were murdered by the Arabs and many women raped.

“We know of two children of our friend Achan Akol Kyii who were sold at Araith and sent away with their master on a horse. We were there for nearly two months. Ten days ago we were lucky to escape. We told our guards that we were going to stretch our legs. They probably thought we could not get away because of my blindness.”

Survivors of these raids say that Christians are often singled out and killed. Boys are often impressed into military service. Slaves are forced to convert to Islam. Sometimes prisoners are ransomed. Bishop Macram Max Gassis of the Sudan testified before a congressional committee last year that his church had been instrumental in the liberation of fifty abducted children. “Their parents or relatives approached me after having identified their children and needed money to be given to the abductors in order to liberate them,” he said.

Such testimony has helped bring the issue before the public, and public officials have taken some steps. The United Nations has condemned the slave trade in Mauritania and the Sudan. The United States has cut off its relatively small amount of development aid to Mauritania and has opposed World Bank loans to the Sudan and Mauritania, which depend heavily on the bank for financial support. Washington has made plain to the governments of both countries that any further aid is contingent upon an end to human rights abuses and slavery and, in the case of the Sudan, an effort to end the civil war through outside mediation.

Nevertheless, the international community’s clout is limited. The Organization of African Unity does not interfere in the internal affairs of its member states. The rules of the World Bank dictate that lending be determined by economic considerations, not human rights issues. The Sudan receives open support from Libya and other countries. Mauritania, part of what was once French West Africa, continues to receive aid from the French government, which argues that quiet diplomacy and economic development will prove more effective in improving human rights.

Mauritania and the Sudan remain remote in Western eyes, their people handicapped by the realities of geopolitics and economics. The average annual per capita income in both places is roughly $500. They offer no sugar or oil or cotton or tea—nothing for a latter—day Coleridge or Wordsworth to hang a boycott on. As the twenty-first century approaches, the slaves of Mauritania and the Sudan are anonymous and forgotten.

“Because they are not being killed, the international community does not care,” said Mr. Athie. “But their identity is killed. They are nobody. This is wrong, terribly wrong. We think something has to be done.”

Joseph R. Gregory is a writer based in New York City.

Image by Delmi licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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