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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.
The issue is so sensitive here that we had to conduct most of our interviews in secret, often in the middle of the night and in covert locations.
The only other option was to do them in the presence of a government minder, who was assigned to our group by the Ministry of Communications to ensure we didn’t mention the topic.
Moulkheir, who is in her 40s, wore a bright blue headscarf and matching dress.
She was brave enough to tell her tale with poise and unflinching resolve.
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.
An estimated 10% to 20% of Mauritania’s 3.4 million people are enslaved — in “real slavery,” according to the United Nations’ special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian.
If that’s not unbelievable enough, consider that Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery.
When we confronted the country’s minister of rural development about slavery’s existence, Brahim Ould M’Bareck Ould Med El Moctar told us his country is among the freest in the world.
“All people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon (of slavery) no longer exists,” he said.
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Her arms are exposed, against custom, so she can work.