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"Freedom Does Not Fall From the Sky"

Mauritanian anti-slavery leader Abdel Nasser Ould Yessa on his journey from slave owner to abolitionist

Abdel Nasser Ould YessaLegend has it that the classic American hymn "Amazing Grace" was composed by a slave master who suddenly saw the light and became an anti-slavery activist. "I was once lost, but now am found," goes the song's central line. "I was blind, but now I see."

"Amazing Grace" might as well have been written by Mr. Abdel Nasser Ould Yessa, Foreign Secretary of the underground anti-slavery group SOS Slaves. In his native Mauritania, a small West African country just above Senegal, chattel slavery has existed for centuries. A ruling class of Arabo-Berber tribes, known as bidanes ("whites") holds black African slaves ("abid" or "haratines") as inheritable property. The master-slave relationship, Yessa notes, touches all aspects of life in Mauritania.

Yessa was born into the bidanes ruling class, and was surrounded by family slaves throughout his childhood. But intellectual exposure to the French Revolution and the Holocaust profoundly disrupted Yessa's worldview as a teenager. He promptly became an abolitionist and a democracy activist, a charismatic human rights leader largely reviled by the ruling elites in Mauritania.

Today, Yessa lives in exile in Paris, heading up the international efforts of SOS Slaves. A Muslim Arab collaborating with activists of all backgrounds, Yessa embodies new hope for Mauritania in the wake of centuries of slavery. In September 2001, he visited the American Anti-Slavery Group's office in Boston, and granted the following interview, which was conducted in French.

You are a member of the ruling bidanes (Arab-Berber) ethnic group. Your family has held slaves for centuries, and slavery is an integral part of the society in which you grew up. So how did you become an anti-slavery activist?

In high school I read about the French Revolution, and was fascinated by the books of Voltaire and Rousseau. The ideal of the French Revolution - that "all men are born free and equal" - captivated me. I began to see that what was happening in my country was not normal. I would come home from school and slaves would care for me. They would bring me drinks, wash my hands, massage my feet, and cook for me.

As a child, how did you relate to your family's slaves? Were there slaves your own age?

When children are young, there is not much difference between the slaves and masters. As a young child, I had five slaves, but we mostly played together. But then at age 6, the social pyramid began. My friend Yebbawa, a boy slave who was my own age, began to serve me. This seemed normal, until I turned 16.

What happened at 16?

Adolescence is always a time of revolt. When I was a teenager, we spent most of the year in the capital, Nouakchott, where my father was a government official. But for four months in the summer we travelled as nomads with a camel caravan. And one day I just said, "No!" If a slave came to care for me, I would refuse them. I started to do things myself. My mother was not happy, because, as she told me, "This is not noble." The slaves did not know how to react. They had never heard what I was saying: that all men are born free.

Why do slaves so often accept their position?

Slaves believe that if they do not obey their masters, they will not go to paradise. They are raised in a social and religious system that everyday reinforces this idea. In society, a slave needs a master to protect him or her: to bring them to the hospital, to bring kids to school, to represent them in court. Slaves need a protector or an intermediary to get by in Mauritanian society. The bidanes run the government, the military, the courts, the schools. Slaves cannot revolt because they would lose everything. They can only hope for justice and legal protection if they have a master.

When and how did slavery in Mauritania begin?

Around 1000 A.D., the Arab and Berber tribes came south to Islamize the Africans. The Africans were animists, who worshipped the sun. Their land, by the way, used to be a very green, lush area - now it is all desert. When the Africans resisted Islamization, they were enslaved. This began centuries of chattel slavery - slavery that has not ended. We didn't learn this history in school; we simply grew up within this social hierarchy and lived it. I should also note that the Muslim missionaries found slavery within the African social context. Within pockets of Mauritania's free Black African population, this practice actually continued through the 1960s. But Mauritania's African society evolved more quickly, as the French colonial influence was stronger. So African-on-African slavery gradually disappeared. However, all slaves in Mauritania are Muslims, like their masters.

How did your activism develop while you were a teenager?

As I became politically active, I also began to agitate against slavery. I wrote slogans on the wall against the regime, like: "Vive la democracie!" I participated in student protests, and generally caused trouble. I had three heroes, whose photos hung in my room: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. A few blocks from my house was the French Cultural Center. I was always there, reading any books I could get my hands on. I was particularly moved by writers who were scarred by the Holocaust: Primo Levi, Levinas, Hannah Arendt, Vassily Grossman, Robert Antelme. Reading about the Holocaust had an enormous impact on me.

Did you get in trouble at school?

Between the ages of 16 and 25, my friends who joined with me were constantly arrested and beaten. But my father was a minister and the President of the Supreme Court, so the police left me alone. I was only stopped once, for 48 hours, but they tortured all of my friends.

What sort of anti-slavery work would you do?

I would go amongst my parents' slaves and tell them to organize and go free. But no one listened. They thought I was very strange, and some even laughed at me. They would shake their heads and say, "Our master is very funny." Others would be concerned: "If slavery ended, we would no longer exist. We were born to be slaves." I understood then that slavery in Mauritania was a question of mental domination, and that the more difficult was to convince the slave that he could become free.

So what did you do next?

To free the slaves, I realized, you had to convince the masters and the international community, which was supporting the ruling regime. So I tried to find other descendants of slaves owners who would join me in opposing slavery. But there were very few. So then I looked for former slaves who might be anti-slavery activists. In 1991, I first met Boubacar Messaoud, an activist who had been born a slave. We began discussions about how to affect change. The big debate was whether to work inside Mauritania or to seek international publicity. We resolved that he would work within the country and I would work in exile - and we would collaborate. We formed SOS Slaves in 1995, with Boubacar as President and myself as Foreign Secretary. The main part of the board is in Mauritania and acts clandestinely.

How did you come up with the name SOS Slaves?

It was Boubacar's idea. My idea was the logo of a slave crying. Boubacar and I work very well together. When he was arrested in 1998, I was condemned in absentia. The government considered us one and the same - we had to be condemned together.

You said earlier that most slaves could not comprehend the idea of freedom. So how did Boubacar become an abolitionist?

When the French came in 1905, they decided that school should be mandatory for Mauritanian children. Many masters did not want to send their kids to school - they preferred that their own children stay at home. So they sent young slaves in their place. After independence, in the 1950s, some masters continued this. They would send lower-caste children in place of their own kids, who would stay with them at home. It was not always like this, but it happened in many cases. Boubacar went to school because his master sent him. He quickly grasped the larger reality, and was even awarded a scholarship to study in Moscow. So he saw the world and became an activist.

How does the Mauritanian government view SOS Slaves?

We are an illegal organization, not recognized by the government. Mauritania is the only country where anti-slavery activists are prosecuted by the police. At first, the government tried to stop us by arresting our leadership. But after Boubacar was arrested in 1998, there was a world outcry. So the government realized the best response was the banal response: to ignore us. Our legal court action, for instance, is led by Mohameden Ould Ichidou, a famous lawyer in Mauritania. Everyone knows he does this work, even though it is technically outlawed. And every year, Boubacar delivers our annual report on slavery to the government. Of course, they refuse to accept it.

What is the mission of SOS Slaves?

First, we provide judicial assistance for haratines (slaves and former slaves) against their masters. Haratines need legal representation in Mauritanian courts to deal with all sorts of disputes with masters: land rights, kidnapping of children, inheritance issues, the right to marry, and work complaints. One of the more modern kinds of slavery we see in Mauritania is with workers in the city - mostly former slaves - who get hired but do not get paid. There is a constant problem of masters not paying, which often results in fights and clashes. So we need to defend the rights of haratines.

Second, we educate and mobilize the haratines. We hold secret meetings with slaves, where we educate them about freedom and distribute propaganda. Our goal is to induce them to take consciousness of their strength and to impose the end of the masters's domination. The government is very concerned because we are planting the ideas of liberation. And they're right - we have to do this. Freedom does not fall from the sky.

Third, we inform international opinion on slavery in Mauritania. We focus especially on democratic nations, whose leaders can pressure the Mauritanian governments to adopt measures to end slavery. Every year for the past seven years, we have published a report on servile condition called the National Plan for the Eradication of Slavery. It calls for the opening of schools in haratine areas; job training for haratines in agriculture, fishing, constructions; and a national convention educating all Mauritanians on moving from a master-slave relationship to a partnership.

The entire Mauritanian public needs to be educated. You know, masters are also enslaved by the mentality of slavery. They are completely dependent on the system of slavery. I have relatives who no longer have slaves, and they are in real trouble. They have no idea how to work or care for themselves. I know this firsthand: When I arrived in France at the age of 25, I had no idea how to prepare food or wash my clothes.

Does the government accept the plan of SOS Slaves?

No, they refuse, even though many foundations and countries would help finance it. The government says there is no slavery in Mauratania.

Why does the government deny the existence of slavery?

You might ask: Why does the government refuse a plan that would enrich the entire country? Because the government believes that if haratines become free and independent, bidane domination will crumble. And they are right! For the government, domination is more important than justice or national prosperity.

Some people would compare Mauritania to South Africa during apartheid.

Well, I see several key differences. Mauritania has no laws of separated development, no geographic segregation, no apartheid. The law is quite egalitarian, but it is simply not applied. Also, we all live together, often within the same house. And finally, slavery existed for a long time within Black African society, and the pyramid of social hierarchies still exists. So we have to campaign not just against Arab slavery, but against forms of slavery throughout society.

But it is still a "White" minority dominating a "Black" majority.

Yes, a small ruling minority profits. But there are many poor bidanes. The similarity to apartheid is only political: the domination is not of one ethnic group against another one. It is a social and not legal hegemony. The majority of bidanes are poor and excluded. Many are against slavery, but do not yet want a complete social transformation.

You began your anti-slavery efforts at age 16. Today, there are thousands of young abolitionist activists. What is your message to them?

I think young activists can understand my journey, maybe even better than adults. They can understand how I came to realize that there was something wrong that needed to be changed. And the main force that can change and move society is youth. And so I invite young Americans to visit Mauritania - it is safe because the government would never harm an American citizen. Come and see for yourself, and then return as a witness and an activist.

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