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Anti-slavery activists say they have been arrested and tortured for their work.When we met Moulkheir in a gray, open-air office in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s seaside capital city where concrete buildings are scattered on the Sahara like Legos in a sandbox, our hired security guard stood watch at the door to make sure no government representatives were following us, as they had during other parts of our visit.A man wearing a powder-blue garment that billows at the arms and has fancy gold embroidery on the chest is almost certainly free and comes from the traditional slave-owning class of White Moors, who are lighter-skinned Arabs.A woman in a loud tie-dye print that covers her hair, but not her arms, is likely a slave.She did so in hopes her former masters would be brought to justice.She was aware that telling her story could put her in danger but asked to be named and to have her photograph shown. As she recounted her torture, imprisonment and escape, her hands gestured wildly but her eyes stayed focused, with dart-like precision, on mine.Her arms are exposed, against custom, so she can work.
If that’s not unbelievable enough, consider that Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery.It’s a place where camels and goats roam the streets alongside dented French sedans; where silky sand dunes give the land the look of a meringue pie topping; where desert winds play with the cloaks of nomadic herdsmen, making their silhouettes look like dancing flames on the horizon; and where, incredibly, the nuances of a person’s skin color and family history determine whether he or she will be free or enslaved.That reality permeates every aspect of Mauritanian life — from the dark-skinned boys who serve mint-flavored tea at restaurants to the clothes people wear.Our official reason for entering the country was to report on the science of locust swarms; our contacts for that story were unaware of our plan to research slavery.If we were caught talking with an escaped slave like Moulkheir, we could have been arrested or thrown out of the country without our notebooks and footage.
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But as one woman’s journey shows, the first step toward freedom is realizing you’re enslaved. She has asked the Mauritanian courts to prosecute her slave masters.