NOUAKCHOTT, AFRICA–In the West African nation of Mauritania, where the Sahara meets the Sahel, ancient traditions continue to play a role in modern life. Despite a series of laws banning the practice, slavery is often justified through enduring religious beliefs brought to this land by conquering Arab-Berbers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Denied even basic education, most slaves are unaware of their rights and how to seek justice, thus perpetuating their bondage.
Matallah was born in the vast desert region of northeastern Mauritania known as Mghaty. As his mother was a slave, so was he.
Their master, Mohammed Ould Brahim, owned up to 15 slave families at one point. Mohammad as well as other members of his family, fathered many of the slave children through the rape of their mothers.
By the time Matallah was able to care for himself, his mother, along with his brother, were sent off to work for other members of Mohammed’s family. As Matallah grew older, encounters with his mother and brother became less frequent until they ceased altogether.
“My brother escaped, but when I asked about him they would tell me he got killed so I didn’t think about escaping myself. When I was young I saw slaves getting killed trying to escape,” Matallah says. “I was determined that if I attempted to escape I should do it in a way so that I would not be caught and returned, because I knew if this were to happen I would most likely be beaten to death.”
Matallah’s responsibilities, like those of his sister Schweida and the other slaves, included grazing the camels and goats, preparing meals, and fetching wood and water. Simple mistakes meant a whipping.
Shepherding camels often took Matallah out on his own deep into the desert. One day, he unwittingly ventured near the border with Mali—and changed his life forever.
“The gendarme, or border police, came across my path as they were patrolling the border,” Matallah explains. “They told me they were in need of someone to shepherd and milk their camels. They asked if I would be interested in this opportunity. I responded by telling them that I was a slave and could not go with them because of my master–that I would be beaten if I did.”
Matallah was summoned by the gendarme commander to sit with him in his car and explain his situation. Matallah told him that he, his sister, and her children were slaves. The commander responded by asking him if he wanted to be free.
“I told him yes, but that I wanted a guarantee that I would never be returned to my master,” Matallah says. “He responded by assuring me I would never come back.”
Matallah was taken to the gendarme base. The following day, after learning what happened, Mohammed and his brothers arrived, intent on reclaiming their lost property. After insisting to the gendarme commander that Matallah be handed over, the commander told Mohammed that the decision was Matallah’s.
“Once confronted by my master, he began telling me that I must return with him because he was my family, my parent, and his brothers and sons were my tribe,” Matallah says. “I told him that he was not my family, that he raped my mother and sister in front of me, he beat my brother and me repeatedly, and that if I were to die at that moment it would be better than to return with him.”
The gendarme took Matallah to Mauritania’s northernmost city of Zouerat, where the local magistrates sent him with the gendarme commander to a desolate, military-controlled area in the desert known as Bir Mghrane. However, word had spread far enough for luck to continue to be on Matallah’s side. The Emir of Zouerat had heard about him, and, as an active member of the nationwide NGO called SOS Esclaves that has been leading the fight against slavery in Mauritania for over 18 years, he notified the group’s president, Massaoud Boubacar, who had also been born into slavery.
“SOS dispatched two men, Jama and Osman, to find Matallah,” says Massaoud. “They found him boxed-in by the military, being closely watched, because the government didn’t want anyone to know about slavery in the region.” Jama and Osman discreetly helped Matallah escape, and he ended up in the city of Nouakchott. Life at this point was understandably disorienting and difficult for Matallah. He longed to be reunited with his family and was determined to free his sister and her children.
It took him a year, but Matallah managed to discover that his mother and brother were now living in a refugee camp in Western Sahara. He joined them, and although it was a joyful reunion, the family remained incomplete without Schweida. Matallah returned to Nouakchott and besieged Massaoud for help.
“As slaves we would sleep on the sand, and eat the scraps of our master’s meals,” Matallah says. “Our master Mohammed told us our lives had no value whatsoever. After living free in Nouakchott I couldn’t bear the thought of my sister and her children continuing to live such a life of torment.”
“Matallah is a wise man, a brave man,” Massaoud says. “He’s is the only former slave I’ve ever known who tried to free his family. In general, when young men escape from their masters they never speak about their families due to the broken family structure that exists after generations of slavery.”
After years of increasingly frustrating setbacks, the Emir of Zouerat contacted Massaoud in February 2013 and told him a new police commander in the region—a Hratine, the name used for those descended from slaves—would be willing to help. It took Matallah, Massaoud and 15 gendarme soldiers scouring the desert for 2 days until finally Schweida and her 9 children were found when they were shepherding the livestock. They had been separated for ten years.
“We were very happy when Matallah came,” Schweida says. “Our master didn’t want to let us go because he believed we were born for his torment, but I knew Matallah would not forget about us, and one day he would come.”
With Massauoud’s help, Matallah and his sister took their former master to court on charges of slavery. Due to Mauritania’s judicial system, however, and its reluctance to properly prosecute crimes associated with slavery, the slave master spent little time behind bars.
These day’s Matallah works as a handyman in the offices of SOS Esclaves. He earns about $3 per day, and although this is barely enough to support his family, he is now in control of his own destiny.
“Al Hamdulilah,“ he says, “Thanks to God, I am no longer a slave.”