FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
On Africa’s northwestern coast sits Mauritania. It straddles the continent’s black African south and Arab north. From 1989 to 1991, the former French colony experienced ethnic cleansing similar to what’s happening now in Darfur, Sudan. The country’s Arab government displaced and killed tens of thousands of black Mauritanians. When we use the word Arab here, we are talking about it in an ethnicity, not a religion. The black Mauritanians are Muslims just as the Arab Mauritanians are.
So let’s flash forward to the present. A group of black Mauritanian exiles are living in New York City. They have filed a lawsuit against their country’s ex- president, Maaoya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya. They hold Ould Taya personally responsible.
And I spoke with Abda Wone. He’s a plaintiff in the class action case against Ould Taya. He’s also a Mauritanian exile and a recent graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. I also spoke with Wesley O’Brien, the lead attorney on the case and general counsel of the Refugee Defense Alliance. Wesley began with a quick timeline of relations between Mauritania’s black Africans and Arabs.
Mr. WESLEY O’BRIEN (General Counsel, Refugee Defense Alliance): In the years following independence, Mauritania was – the politics of Mauritania were relatively balanced between the two groups, the independence that was around 1960. By around 1986, discriminatory policies were starting to take effect against the black Mauritanians.
In 1986, a group of black Mauritanians published a manifesto demanding equality in the country. It was at that time that they started to really crackdown on the black Mauritanians. By 1989, Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, the defendant in our case, who was president at that time, began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the black Mauritanians.
CHIDEYA: So let me ask you Abda, how many people do you estimate died in this ethnic cleansing, and tell us a little bit about your own experience?
Mr. ABDA WONE (Spokesperson, American Anti-Slavery Group): I would say more than 3,000 people were killed. My experience is similar to the experience of black Mauritanians who were deported in 1989 from Mauritania to Senegal, and from Mauritania to Mali. My family was actually deported from Kaedi, the southern part of Mauritania. There were more than 120,000 people who were deported from Mauritania to Senegal and to Mali. And, of course, the reason of their deportation was just to the color of their skin.
I was 16 when I was deported to Senegal. Since then I lived in Senegal as a refugee. And I finished school, I went to university to study journalist. I worked as a newspaper reporter in Senegal, in Dakar, before being resettled in 2000 to the United States of America.
CHIDEYA: When I think about what I know about Africa – I have certainly never been to Mauritania – what I am being reminded of as you’re talking is Darfur. How do you look at Mauritania now? And what I mean by that is, do you still consider yourself Mauritanian even though you have not spent most of your life there?
Mr. WONE: I think, and I believe, I am Mauritanian. God has chosen me to be born in Mauritania and whatever I can, I will do to go back to Mauritania and to live as a Mauritanian. Yes, you notice some similarities between what happened in Darfur, in Sudan and Mauritania. What happened in these two countries, you have Arabs who are willing to create an all-Arab country. The difference between Mauritania and Sudan is, in Mauritania we are 100 percent Muslim. But still, being black in Mauritania mean you are a second-class citizen.
And in Mauritania, we had our Darfur in 1989. More than 30 percent of Mauritanians are descendants of slaves. And today, more than 100,000 people are our slaves. And I mean by slaves is a way that it was practiced in the history. There are people who own all the people, and unfortunately it happened to my country.
CHIDEYA: Wesley, this is a perfect chance for you to talk to us a little bit about that issue of slavery. I once met a man who escaped from slavery. He had been enslaved by his own parents, sold off, when he was a child. And it really brought home to me the idea that there are modern-day slaves. He was from Africa, but there are slaves in other countries. Explain to us exactly what goes on with this whole issue of slavery in Mauritania?
Mr. O’BRIEN: Yes. Slavery is continuing today, as Abda mentioned. And it’s a problem that we had hoped to file some sort of action against. We were unable to locate any escaped slave in the United States. What we have been able to do, though, is file the class action lawsuit. Our demands within the class action lawsuit itself cannot cover slavery. We’re demanding more broadly that it’s time to end slavery in Mauritania.
CHIDEYA: Let’s break this down into a couple of issues. First, you have the former president Ould Taya. Tell me how he figures in, in terms of your assessment of his leadership and any possible civil rights and human rights violations.
Mr. O’BRIEN: From the time of the ethnic cleansing from 1989 to 1991, from then until 2005 very little change in Mauritania. In 2005, the chief of the secret police, Colonel Ely Vall, will overthrow Ould Taya in a military coup d’etat. A lot of people in the world had problems with this. But shortly thereafter, Colonel Vall began to prevent elections in the country. And just last month has transferred power to a newly elected president.
People have characterized this as a democratic election. We don’t see it as democratic until slavery has ended in the country and the refugees are allowed to return home.
CHIDEYA: So now that brings us back to the issue of slavery. You don’t have someone who has been enslaved as a participant in your specific legal action, but how does slavery figure in to the big picture in Mauritania?
Mr. O’BRIEN: This case is about discrimination and racism in the country. Slavery is just the strongest example of that in the country. It’s the slavery that continues today and the refugees not being allowed in the country – it is because of the color of their skin. Our plaintiffs, all, were thrown out of the country, were tortured. One of our plaintiffs had her husband killed. This is all because of the color of their skin. This is a legacy that has continued in Mauritania for the last 800 years, as a matter of fact, since slavery was started there.
CHIDEYA: Abda, it takes so long to recover from slavery. And I know slavery is not the only issue with Mauritania, with Ould Taya, with people like yourself who’ve been displaced. But here in the U.S., we’re still recovering from slavery. And it ended over 150 years ago. What do you expect or what do you hope can be accomplished in the short term?
Mr. WONE: Well, in a short term, what I want is all the slaves to be freed and to have the right to go to school and to be treated as human being. What we want is not a black supremacy. What we want is just equality between all Mauritanians.
CHIDEYA: Wesley, Abda, thank you so much.
Mr. O’BRIEN: Thank you.
Mr. WONE: Thank you very much. God bless you.
CHIDEYA: That was Abda Wone. He’s named the plaintiff in a class action case against Mauritania’s ex-president. Wone is also a Mauritanian exile himself, a speaker for the American Anti-Slavery Group, and a recent graduate of Columbia University. Also with us was Wesley O’Brien, lead attorney on the case and general counsel of the Refugee Defense Alliance. They joined us from NPR’s New York studios.