During a press conference on Sunday 11 March 2012 at FONADH, the SOS Slaves human rights non-government organization denounced the ordeal of sisters Selama Mint Mbarek and Maimouna Mint Mbarek, former slaves in the rural Western basin of Mauritania. The two girls escaped from their master across the Sahara desert in the dead of night taking only a little water with them for the journey. With the help of a Tuareg nomad, they headed first toward Bassikounou and after two days, travelling at night to avoid detection and the risk of being forcibly returned, eventually reached Néma.
At the age most girls are concerned with passing their school diploma, 14 year old Selama Mint Mbarek is already the mother of a son, born to her after being raped while serving as a farm hand for her former owner. Her younger sister, just 10 years old, has never experienced the inncocence of childhood, and was regularly beaten by her master. It was after one of these corporal punishments that the two little girls fled. Even so, Selama had to convince her sister that running away was worth the risk. Despite the perils of the journey ahead, Selama brought her child with her. According to the heartbreaking testimonies they delivered to the press, their master is still holding their aunt, brothers and cousins under his yoke.
This is the video interview with Selama and Boubacar Ould Messaoud, founding member of the SOS Slaves NGO, by Mauritanian news agency Alakhbar during a visit to the capital, Nouakchott, shortly after their escape.
The girls were just 7 and 3 years old when their parents died. The deaths created a double burden for Selama, who became full-time slave to her master and surrogate parent to her baby sister at that tender age. Soon they were presented to a new owner, who set them to work in the desert, Selama tending a herd of camels and Maiouma a flock of sheep. It was while tending the herd that Selama was raped. She reported it to her owners but they saw no reason to take any action. The level of deprivation experienced by these two little girls is shocking. On the pretext of “building their stamina and endurance” the owner left them in the extremes of temperature without adequate protections, and denied both of them food or water for up to 2 days at a time for any “misdeeds” such as being unable to find a stray lamb. They were not allowed to sit with the family for rest or meals, and were given only the most basic clothing just once every two years. Selama relates the tawdry details of these conditions in a world-weary tone; she has known no other life. In between, she attends to her son with a competence one can only admire.
The aunt, M’Barka Mint Salka, and her children Souélick and M’Bareck were rented by their master, Oulad Sidi of the Laglal tribe, to the Ehel Bourrada tribe in Dhar. After intervention by the regional representative of SOS Slaves, the Wali (governor) and local prosecutor ordered the genradmerie to investigate.
The case was investigated by a judge, and brought to the Prime Minister, Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf. They were awarded 5,000 UM (about US$17) from the Program to Eradicate Sequels of Slavery. This small amount is intended to cover their needs. SOS Slaves however notes in its statement that the ruling does not include actions to find and free brothers Lagdav and Hamid, or aunt M’Barka Mint Salka and her children. Neither does it seek to prosecute their former owner, despite slavery being outlawed several times in Mauritania, being against the constitution and having being “criminalized” in an amendment* to the constitution just last month.
The human rights NGO raised concern for slavery cases involving minors and expressed its discontent to see this case filed without action, especially regarding the attitude of the defence. SOS Slaves is disappointed that the justice system appears unwilling to pursue a conviction, as happened with the Moulemine Mint Boubacar Vall case, which was exonerated by the Supreme Court in January 2011. SOS Slaves issued a warning that the struggle against slavery must continue and urges the authorities to perform their duty regarding slavery victims.
*It should be noted that the constitution was amended by a special session of both houses of government in Mauritania but that those bodies were acting outside of their legal mandate, which expired in November 2011. Therefore, the new amendment to criminalise slavery may not stand up to legal scrutiny.