Selek’ha Mint Ahmed Lebeid was born into slavery in Mauritania. She escaped in 2000 at the age of 20 after she reached a turning-point and realized she was a slave: “I felt my situation was wrong. I saw how others lived.” One day she started walking and didn’t stop until she was free. Then, with the human rights organization SOS Slaves, Selek’ha returned to seek the release of her mother, Oumoulkhér. Virtually all extended families of the dominant White Moor caste in Mauritania have owned slaves for generations: slaves are the property of a male family member and children of slave women become property too. Slave families usually live within their master’s household, are not paid for their work, and generally have no freedom of movement. They work as herders of livestock, agricultural workers, and domestic servants. As in the 19th-century American South, race matters intensely: most slaveholders are Arab Berbers and most slaves are descendents of black Africans. Estimates of the number of black Africans enslaved in Mauritania range from 100,000 to one million, a vast proportion of the country’s three million population.
Like her mother and grandmother before her, Salma Mint Saloum was born into slavery in Mauritania. Slavery was first abolished in Mauritania in 1905, by colonial French rulers, and again when Mauritania joined the UN in October 1961. It was abolished for the third time in 1981 by the Military Committee of National Salvation. But the situation didn’t fundamentally change: masters don’t have to pay their slaves or provide any sort of social security; the ban did not address how masters were to be compensated or how slaves were to gain property; and there was no provision for enforcement. This arrangement allows the legal fiction of slavery’s abolition to continue. In 2003 Mauritania passed a law that made slaveholding punishable by fines and imprisonment but no slaveholder has been prosecuted. As Salma explains in her narrative, “[i]t doesn’t matter what the laws say there, because there they don’t apply the laws.” In 1997 Salma decided not to wait any longer, and liberated herself. She crossed the river border into Senegal, but still didn’t feel free. As she notes, “I was free. I still wasn’t free.” She felt that to be “truly free,” beyond the danger of re-enslavement, meant going to the US, and so began a journey that retraced the route of the transatlantic middle passage, though with a very different outcome. In the US, Salma observes, she experienced “total liberty.” Her narrative includes a long section that compares her life as a slave with her life as a free person, and Salma defines this new freedom. She focuses on freedom of expression, and being able “to talk with people I choose to talk to…to be free to go where I want, to eat what I want, to sleep where I want.” Freedom also means being able to “make decisions concerning my own children,” for in Mauritania she “never had the right” had to “watch the children of the master’s wife” instead of her own. Most importantly, however, freedom means being paid for her work. This, she emphasizes, is “really liberty.”Salma first told her story, as printed here, in 2003, and updated it in 2009.
Shanti narrated her story while enslaved as a bonded laborer in the rock quarries of Uttar Pradesh, India. Debt bondage is the most common form of modern slavery. Found predominantly in South Asia and South America, it occurs when a person pledges their labor or that of a child for an indefinite period of time in return for financial credit. Debts arise in India from two main sources: an urgent crisis such as illness, injury, or famine, and the need to pay for death rites or marriage celebrations. Technically, bonded laborers can end their servitude once the debt is repaid, but this rarely occurs. A combination of low wages and high interest rates makes it impossible to repay the initial debt, and the debt usually increases because the employer deducts payment for equipment and living expenses, or charges fines for faulty work. According to India’s laws, families can simply walk away from debt and bondage, but this is usually impossible: if families try to leave, the slaveholder’s thugs retaliate with beatings, rape and forced eviction. If a family survives the beatings, they are free to starve. Without access to jobs, health care, community support or credit, independence is impossible to sustain, and they re-enter debt bondage.Though the Bonded Labor Abolition Act of 1976 criminalizes the use of the system, which is 1500 years old in India, those in debt bondage face involuntary servitude in brick kilns, rice mills, carpet looms and embroidery factories. Bonded labor is also widespread in the quarrying of granite and other stones. Workers are required to purchase their own materials, and are forced to borrow money from the contractors or quarry owners. Children aged four to 14 are required to work along with their parents for up to 14 hours a day, carrying loads of rocks in order to maximize production. Bonded children are sometimes sold to other contractors, and female workers are frequently raped. Accidents caused by explosions or drilling are common, and workers suffer from respiratory illnesses due to inhaling stone dust.
In 2000, some of the 220 residents of Sonebarsa, a quarrying village in Uttar Pradesh, India, revolted against their slaveholders. About 40 families lived in Sonebarsa, all of them Kols, an ethnic group near the bottom of India’s steep ladder of caste and discrimination, and all locked into hereditary debt bondage. Children worked from the age of three or four, and infant mortality was high. Shyamkali was one of the slaves who rebelled. The villagers had begun meeting with organizers from Sankalp, a grassroots NGO that has helped thousands of slaves to free themselves from slavery in the stone quarries of Uttar Pradesh. The narrative focuses on the role of women in the process of self-liberation. Shyamkali explains that “because we are also bread earners…we also have equal role to play in fighting for our freedom. The slaves called a mass meeting, and were joined by 3,500 people from 60 villages. Slaveholders interrupted the meeting, attacked the villagers, and shot guns into the air. The villagers retaliated by throwing stones and one of the contractors was killed. His friends set fire to Sonebarsa. After the burning of Sonebarsa, Sankalp assisted the 40 refugee families and helped them form micro-credit unions. The villagers pooled their money, and petitioned for a mining lease. But the Allahabad Mining Corporation wouldn’t allow leases and so the villagers moved onto unoccupied land in Uttar Pradesh and began mining it. Authorities protested this in court, but a judge ruled that no unauthorized workwas being done and signed leases. Today the villagers continue to build their community, which they have named Azad Nagar, “the land which is free.”
Tamada was born into slavery in Niger, home to some 43,000 hereditary slaves. Found among four of the country’s eight ethnic groups, slavery is a centuries-old practice in Niger. Slaves are controlled through violence and indoctrination, and are separated from their parents at a young age. Women and girls perform domestic duties, men tend herds of cattle and goats, and children are often passed from one owner to another. Individuals are also born into slavery in Mauritania, Mali, and Chad. Slavery was outlawed in Niger in 1960, when the country claimed independence from France, but this remained a theoretical ban. In May 2003 slavery was made punishable by up to 30 years in prison, and that same year, Tamada learnt that her mother and grandmother had escaped from their master. She decided to do the same. But her turning-point took several months: she waited, worried, and thought about running away, before seizing her children one evening and beginning her escape. Leaving Mali, she crossed the border back into Niger with her two children—the first born when Tamada was 12 years old. She was assisted by Timidria, a human rights organization founded in 1991. Tamada concludes with an acknowledgement that life after bondage remains hard. And the 2003 law seems to have made little difference for other slaves. In September 2004, the Tuareg chief Arissal Ag Amdague made a written promise that he would release 7000 slaves owned by his people. Claiming that his religious beliefs as a Muslim were incompatible with slaveholding, he said he wanted to release the slaves he had inherited. The date was set for this first ever release of slaves in Niger: March 5, 2005, at a ceremony in the village of Inates, near the border with Mali. But no mass emancipation took place. Instead, on March 5, just a month after Tamada had narrated her story, Amdague stood before the crowd and denied that he owned any slaves.
Vasanthi became a child soldier in Sri Lanka at the age of 10. She was one of hundreds of thousands of children who participate in armies and armed groups in more than 30 countries around the world. The problem is most critical in Africa, where up to 100,000 children are estimated to be involved in armed conflict. Child soldiers also exist in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Burma, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, even though international law sets 18 as the minimum age for all participation in hostilities.
In 1985 William Akoi Mawwin was captured and forced into slavery at the age of six years. During raids by Muslim militia from Northern Sudan on the villages of the Christian Dinka tribes during the 1980s, tens of thousands of other boys between the ages of four and ten had the same fate. As well, babies and toddlers were killed, and girls were raped, killed, or forced into slavery. Some boys who escaped capture headed to refugee camps in Kenya, but it is estimated that only one in three survived the journey.After seven years in slavery, William escaped and lived on the streets of the capital. He worked to earn money for a passport, and left for Cairo, Egypt, where he found work in a rubber factory before a machinery accident took his hands. In 2001 the US government granted 3600 Sudanese orphans refugee status. Some 500 boys, including 21-year-old William, were placed in Arizona.William fashions his capture as a sudden disappearance: “You’re gone for good.” But his narrative confronts this problem of erasure and offers a solution: “I’m here,” he insists. This assertion of ongoing presence is part of William’s call to action. While his family gave him up as dead after he disappeared—“[n]obody believed,” he observes—William refuses to give up, in turn, on other slave children: “I’m not going to give up. I believe,” he concludes. For while he still doesn’t feel entirely liberated (explaining that his “heart’s not free”), William seeks a final sense of freedom through activism that might lead to a large-scale liberation of Sudan’s slaves. Reminding his reader about “the kids who are slaves today,” he asks: “What are we going to do…?”
Hundreds of thousands of people are trafficked across international borders each year, but millions more are enslaved within their own countries. Unknown numbers have been held as slave laborers in China’s “Laogai” (labor reform camps). Created by the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong, the Laogoi system is intended to “reeducate criminals” and uses prisoners as a source of cheap labor. The camps produce major consumer goods and pay no salaries. Prisoners work for up to 16 hours a day and experience solitary confinement, torture, gang rape, sleep deprivation, malnutrition, drugging, and brainwashing. Some of the Laogai prisoners are practitioners of Falon Gong, a spiritual movement based on Buddhist principles that was banned in China in 1999. Jennifer Zeng was one of these individuals. She was held in Beijing Xin’an Female Labor Camp and forced to make toys.
The vast majority of domestic slaves are girls aged between 12 and 17. Globally, domestic work is rarely scrutinized or legislated, and statistics are hard to obtain. But the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that at least ten million children, some as young as eight, are trapped in domestic labor around the world. There are two million child domestics in South Africa, 700,000 in Indonesia, 559,000 in Brazil, 200,000 in Kenya, millions more in India and Pakistan. The trafficking into domestic labor of children—mainly girls—is estimated to be worth $7 billion per year. Seba was one of these domestic slaves. She left her home country of Mali for France at the age of eight: a couple took her to Paris, promising her parents that they would educate and care for her, in return for work as a nanny. But Seba was enslaved as a household servant, beaten, tortured, and forced to do domestic chores. She was freed when a neighbor heard the sounds of abuse and beating, and managed to talk to her. Seeing her scars, the neighbor called the police and the French Committee against Modern Slavery (CCEM). Medical examinations confirmed that Seba had been tortured. In her narrative, which she told at the age of 22, Seba focuses on her mistreatment at the hands of a “mistress.” Though she does describe an occasion when the husband joined in a beating, most of the narrative is devoted to the starvation, beatings and torture by the wife. As well, while Seba terms the woman “mistress,” she never refers to the man as “master,” only as “[the mistress’] husband.” Showing a woman wholly invested in the institution of slavery, this narrative challenges the equation of mastery and manhood. The image is a drawing by Seba, which she completed while telling her narrative. It was the first time she had ever tried to draw a person.
Karla Jacinto Romero was trafficked by a 22-year-old man at the age of 12, and enslaved until the age of 16 in brothels, roadside motels and homes in Guadalajara and other cities in Mexico. She estimates that she was raped 43,000 times, by 30 people a day for seven days a week during four years. She gave birth at 15 to a baby. The baby's father, a pimp, used the child to further control Karla, threatening to kill the baby if Karla tried to escape or resist.Karla was rescued during an anti-trafficking operation in Mexico City in 2008. She has shared her antislavery message with the US Congress, the Mexican House of Representatives, and the Vatican. Her testimony was used as evidence in support for H.R. 515 or Megan's Law that mandates U.S. authorities share information pertaining to American child sex offenders when these convicts attempt to travel abroad.
In February 2016, at a hearing entitled Ending Modern Slavery: Now is the Time, "Leah" testified before the Senate Foreign Relates Committee. She was enslaved in forced prostitition for seven years, and trafficked across the United States, in South Carolina, Florida, Texas, California, Louisiana, Arizona, Illinois, Ohio and Colorado. "Leah" is now an advocate for A21, an organization working against modern slavery.
Evelyn Chumbow was taken from her family in Cameroon at age 10 by a man who convinced her parents that she would get a better education in the United States. Instead, she was forced to work as a slave in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, doing manual labor for her captor and being verbally and physically abused.In her narrative, which she delivered before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she asked Congress to address labor trafficking as well as sex trafficking, and referenced a House bill that addresses only sex trafficking.
"Edward" was beaten, degraded and made to work long hours in forced labour in the UK. At one point he was sold by one man to another man for £300. He was removed from a situation of exploitation by the specialist investigators of the charity Hope for Justice. The British Government estimates that there are around 13,000 people in modern day slavery in the UK today. Over 3,000 people, including nearly 1,000 children, were referred to British authorities as potential victims of slavery in 2015, a 40% increase on the previous year. The most common countries of origin were from Albania, Nigeria and Vietnam.
Salma was born into slavery in Mauritania, one of the last places on earth where hereditary chattel slavery is practiced. She smuggled herself across the Atlantic on a cargo ship to freedom, arriving in the US in 1999. The following year, she sought legal asylum through the New York Association for New Americans. An immigration judge ruled that Salma was a slave entitled to US protection.Salma first told her story in 2003, and updated it here in 2009.
Nadia Murad Basee Tah was one of thousands of people who have been enslaved by ISIS in Iraq. She is a member of the ethnic Kurdish minority Yazidi people. In August 2014, 10,000 Yazidis were killed or enslaved during the Sinjar Massacre in northern Iraq. ISIS seized control of Sinjar district, home to about 350,000 Yazidis. After killing the men, they took women and children into captivity. Along with all 1100 women and children from her village of Kocho, Nadia was captured. ISIS also killed six of her brothers, and her mother (who was too old for sexual enslavement). Nadia was taken with 150 other women and girls, ranging from nine to 28 years old, to Mosul. The women and girls were then distributed from centers. This system allows ISIS militants to take and use women and girls, then return us to the center. Like the other women and girls, Nadia was raped and tortured. Nadia escaped to a refugee camp, remained there for a year, then immigrated to Germany through a visa program to treat and host women and girls who have escaped ISIS captivity. In December 2015, the Yazda organization helped her to speak before the UN Security Council. Since then, she had campaigned internationally to raise awareness about the Yazidi genocide and the plight of Yazidi women and girls.
An orphan who was tricked into leaving her village in northern Nigeria in 1998, Joy Ubi-Ubi fashions the turning-point from freedom to slavery as the moment when she drank blood during a voodoo ritual. Afterwards, once Joy was in Europe, her captors said this ritual meant the “juju” would kill her if she tried to escape. As Joy explains, she was thereby “forced to do the work” of a prostitute. She was enslaved for three years in the deprived Bijlmer district of Amsterdam—home to many West African immigrants. But the narrative also includes a parallel turning-point from slavery to freedom: the moment when Joy was asked to drink something again: a liquid that would make her bleed, and miscarry. This time, she refused to take the drink. Not wanting to abort her pregnancy, she made the decision to escape, then was helped by a West African Pentecostal minister who operates mission houses in Amsterdam. This use of native West African voodoo is a common feature of the slave experience for Nigerian women held in Western Europe (of whom there are around 10,000). The women and girls undergo an initiation ritual before leaving their country: for Joy this included the marking of her face and hands, and laying hands on a “juju” (statue), as well as drinking blood. They are often made to swear to the gods that they will work hard for their employers, and will never mention their real names, run away, or contact the police. Captors threaten the women with punishment by the gods for any disobedience, and warn that any attempt to escape will awaken a curse on their families. Once in Europe they are drugged, then resold. Held in brothels, they have sex with customers but are not paid: Joy notes that all money changed hands before the clients reached her room. Any pregnancies are aborted.
Faith was taken from her home country of Zimbabwe into South Africa in 2004. Like many young Zimbabwean women, she was trafficked through the false promise of employment. Other Zimbabwean women are tricked into slavery through promises of marriage and education, and some are simply abducted. Zimbabwean women are also forced into prostitution in the UK, the US and South East Asia, and some are trafficked internally from rural to urban areas for forced domestic labor. High levels of poverty and unemployment are factors in Zimbabwe’s trafficking problem, and the low status of women in Zimbabwean society perpetuates gender violence. The situation worsened after 2005, when the Zimbabwean government began Operation Murambatsvina (“Operation Clean-Up”), a campaign to forcibly clear slum areas. This displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and left an estimated 223,000 children vulnerable to trafficking. In South Africa, where Faith was still in slavery as she narrated her story, the number of trafficking victims remains unknown but the International Organization for Migration reports that trafficked women and children arrive from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia (trafficked through Zimbabwe), and that several major criminal groups in South Africa now traffic women: Bulgarian and Thai syndicates, the Russian and the Chinese Mafi, and African criminal organizations, mainly from West Africa.
In 2001, Flor Molina was 28 years old and had just lost her youngest child. She was working two jobs in Puebla, Mexico, but not making enough money to feed and clothe her surviving children. At night, she took sewing classes. When her sewing teacher told her about a job in the United States, she accepted. But a woman confiscated her documents at the border. She was taken to Los Angeles, and immediately put to work in a sewing factory. There she worked 18-hour-days, was subjected to physical abuse, and wasn’t allowed to leave the building unattended. She escaped after 40 days and was helped by CAST, an LA-based NGO. She told her story in 2010, as part of the California legislature's hearings on the California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act. The law requires companies doing business in California with more than $100 million in annual global profits to report their efforts to eliminate slavery from their supply chains. Flor is now a member of CAST’s Survivors Caucus, a group of women from numerous countries who escaped forced labor in the United States. Another narrative by Flor can be found in the archive.
Shandra Woworuntu graduated from college with a major in Finance and Bank Management in her native Indonesia. Looking for an opportunity to work in the US, she responded to an advertisement for a job that promised a six month position in the hotel industry in Chicago. But the agent who met her at New York City’s JFK airport drove her to the brothel and took control of her passport and identification. When she tried to protest, he put a gun to her head. She was forced to work for 24 hours a day at different brothels throughout New York and Connecticut and eventually escaped by jumping out of a bathroom window in Brooklyn. Her traffickers were prosecuted and Shandra now works with anti-human trafficking advocacy groups and is a legislative lobbyist in Washington DC.
Almasi was enslaved within Kenya. She was deceived by a childhood friend who said she could work as a cleaner in Mombasa. But instead she was taken to a house that served as a brothel and enslaved for six months. She escaped by jumping out of a moving vehicle. She later discovered that she was HIV positive. As part of the process of narrating her story, she also created artwork. Her narrative explains the images of a wing and a tortoise. Almasi is a fictional name to protect the narrator's identity.