But the fight against slavery has a face: that of the prominent activist Biram Dah Abeid. He is sometimes compared to Spartacus, the leader of the slave uprising against the Roman Republic, or to Malcolm X, but to many locals he is simply Biram, the man who goes on hunger strikes, frees slaves, and who once publicly burnt Islamic scriptures that he says justify slavery. In just a couple of years, Biram has split the country into two groups: those who love him and those who hate him.
I met Biram a year before my trip to Mauritania, in Brussels. Surrounded by three guards in a hotel room, he spoke slowly and thoughtfully, like a reverend. “I am always shocked when some Westerners try to tell me that slavery is part of our culture,” he told me. “They take a brutal crime, decriminalize it and turn it into a cultural phenomenon. There is no crime older than rape. Yet nobody will say it is a cultural thing.”
When Biram was eight years old, his father told him that his grandmother had been a slave. The revelation had a profound impact on him. “I promised my father that I was going to fight slavery and discrimination,” he told me. The young boy started to write pamphlets, which he handed out at school. Later, he went to study law in the capital Nouakchott and had an administrative job for 10 years until he was so frustrated with his superiors that he quit and became a full-time activist.
After being a member of the more diplomatic and state recognized anti-slavery organization SOS Esclaves for many years, he decided to create his own organization in 2008. The logo of L’Initiative pour la Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste (IRA) is a red clenched fist. The powers that be deserve a punch, and Biram intends to throw one at them.
“The state has been complicit in slavery, so it is not in their interest to fight it. That is why slavery continues to exist,” he told me in Brussels. The UN also holds Mauritania’s government responsible, as it has failed to implement legislation and seems unwilling to follow up on allegations of slavery. Most cases are closed without proper investigations.