Mauritania, The Last Stronghold Of Slavery

Among the Berber slaves of Mauritania, property of Arab masters despite their shared Muslim faith.

Young fishermen in Nouakchott, Mauritania
Young fishermen in Nouakchott, Mauritania
Domenico Quirico

NOUAKCHOTT â€" Mauritania is one of the few countries, perhaps the only one, where slavery still exists. Not slavery in the more modern sense of the word, implying some form of economic exploitation, but slavery of the ancient kind â€" what we in the West believe was abolished long ago. Yes, in Mauritania, slaves are the property of their masters who control their destinies from childhood. They can be lent and traded, and the children of slaves are condemned to the same fate for the rest of their lives.

In this sparsely populated desert country in northwestern Africa, slaves are exclusively Haratins, dark-skinned Berbers who make up around 40% of Mauritania’s population. Laws on the books prohibit slavery, but that is little consolation to a defenseless group subjected to a life of suffering without recourse. Slavery does not officially exist in Mauritania, yet slaves do, and all they can do is tell the world about their misery.

In the dark years of the Atlantic system, the African men, women, and children destined to become slaves in the Americas would conduct a ritual before leaving the continent. They would gather around a “forgetting tree” for a ceremony designed to rid them of their African origins, so that they wouldn’t return as spirits to haunt their captors after death. No such thing exists in Mauritania where slaves often seem happily devoted to their masters, united by their common Islamic faith that effectively acts as the chains that bind them to their captors.

Nouakchott, the country’s capital, is eerily silent at night. The streets are empty and the city is asleep; the darkness punctured only by the odd bright light of a cafe. Child beggars roam the streets, silently following you at markets and intersections with their empty cans. They are children of slaves, the first I encounter on my visit here.

In the streets of Nouakchott â€" Photo: Maxim VanBest Dynasty

Nouakchott is sprawling but empty, a city hidden in the Sahara desert notable only for the scourge of slavery. “My story is banal, about a slave and her master,” says Habj Rabah, covered from head to toe in black robes. “My ancestors were slaves too and I never went to school, I tend to my owners’ animals, do house chores and bring my masters water, but they still hit me.” Her Muslim faith does not protect her from such abuses. “I’m Muslim, but they tell me it doesn’t matter if I wear the veil or pray, because God decided I’m a slave that belongs to “white” Arabs and I must obey them,” she says.

Many slaves in Mauritania are children, born into the practice as a result of their mothers’ origins. One must never ask Haratins who their fathers are, only their mothers; it’s considered rude, because oftentimes the father was a master or another slave, a detail irrelevant to the child’s destiny.

In the morning I travel to the poor Haratin neighborhood of Riyad, taken there by a militant abolitionist who drives a rugged old Mercedes. The area is an enormous slum lined with rows upon rows of makeshift “homes,” composed of tin, wood, and sheets. The Haratins who live here are not free from slavery; they have simply been released here by masters who no longer wanted them â€" but they all know that they can be recalled to serve them at any time. Without any official documents and explicit consent from their masters, they cannot leave the city or find work.

The only Arabs that roam Riyad are the owners of shops and the large grain silos where they store rice and flour as they wait for higher prices to sell their goods. The owners of Riyad’s slaves live far from these sandy, reeking streets where donkeys roam carrying dirty drinking water for the locals. Children scour expansive piles of garbage for anything to quench their hunger, surrounded by swarms of flies and sheep with a similar interest in the putrid waste.

“They took me from my mother when I was five, and I would take care of my master’s animals and his home,” says Barka Asatin, 28. “One day he raped me when I was still a child, and I gave birth to a child that he gave to his daughter.” She is free today, thanks to the love of the man who is now her husband. “Then my master’s son raped me too and I had a child from him, but there was a driver who unlike me was not a slave, and he decided to help me find my mother,” she says. “He found her and took me away to safety, but my master was enraged and took my children hostage, and even my own mother denounced me to the police and judges to help my master.”

The Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), an abolitionist group led by the imprisoned Biram Dah Abeid â€" dubbed “Mauritania’s Mandela” â€" aided Barka in her legal battles against the police and judiciary. “My own mother said I was crazy, but the driver helped me and we eventually won and married, now we live together with my two children and a third we had together,” she says.

There is no hiding the squalid conditions and fundamental injustices of the slaves who live in Riyad, where the streets are governed by an air of dejected resignation. “I found out I was a slave when I saw my master treat his children differently from me,” says Said, who fled from his master three years ago at age fifteen. “Slavery has defined my entire life and I don’t know where most of my half-siblings are, it took me ten years to find one, and one of my sisters refused to leave her master.”

Slavery exists in the open here; a way of life present in the city’s streets, homes, and markets. It’s pervasive, reminding you every second that you are in Mauritania, a country that feels like it’s almost on another planet. If you don’t know how to tell if someone is a slave or not, all you have to do is travel to Nouakchott’s market where slaves toil to carry bricks and cement, or visit the home of a judge where they serve the very men who are supposed to defend their rights. In Nouakchott, you are surrounded by slavery wherever you go. They’ve polished the stairs you walk on, painted the walls you pass by, and cooked the food you eat. The absence of freedom is “normal” here, a city dominated by a sense of remorseless indifference to the plight of its oppressed.

“Anti-slavery laws exist only to distract Westerners, but judges here use Islamic law to justify slavery,” says Hamadi, who dedicated his entire life to abolishing the practice. “They teach it in the schools, a vestige of when Arabs conquered this land centuries ago and kept the defeated locals as slaves, using religion as a cover.”

In 2016, nothing has changed in Mauritania. “It’s not a matter of the color of your skin or your social class, it’s far more complicated, something that starts at childhood,” says Hamadi. “Slaves have no freedom of choice, they don’t exist as individuals, they obey their masters and are ready to die for them.”

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The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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