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Katie Harris is a freelance journalist whose interests include international affairs, social justice and the arts. She has a Masters in International Relations and is currently based in Cardiff.

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Katie Harris is a freelance journalist whose interests include international affairs, social justice and the arts. She has a Masters in International Relations and is currently based in Cardiff.

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Mauritania, slavery hotspot

Mauritania

Slavery is commonplace in the desert country of Mauritania. 300td.org under a Creative Commons Licence

In the large, sparsely populated desert country of Mauritania, slavery is rife – despite being outlawed in 1981 and made a crime against humanity in 2012.

Mauritania, on the western coast of the Sahara, has the highest prevalence of slavery per head of population, according to the 2013 Global Slavery Index. Compiled by the anti-slavery charity Walk Free Foundation, the index found that 151,000 people – almost four per cent of the entire population – may be living in slavery. Estimates by other groups put this figure at up to 20 per cent.

Slavery in Mauritania primarily takes the form of chattel slavery, with slave status being passed down through the generations from people originally captured during historical raids by slave-owning groups.

It is also tied up with racism. Mauritanian society is made up of three main ethnic groups: Haratins, Afro-Mauritanians and White Moors. Generational slavery is perpetuated because Haratins – black Africans stolen from villages a few centuries ago during Arab-African wars – are traditionally seen as the property of the White Moors.

Abidine Ould-Merzough, a human rights activist and member of the Haratin community now living in Germany, says the White Moors – a minority in Mauritania – wield a disproportionate amount of political power. ‘They want to keep the Haratin community underdeveloped – if they allow them to be educated, they will refuse to be slaves and will be a competitor for power,’ he says.

Indoctrination is a key feature of slavery in Mauritania, with religious teachings used to justify the practices of slavery. ‘There’s an interpretation of Islam that says society is divided into two – masters and slaves,’ says Ould-Merzough. ‘The slaves accept this and believe their status is willed by God.’

Some critics say that Mauritania’s geopolitical role (it’s seen as an important Western ally against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) has led to slavery in the country being overlooked. As for the Mauritanian government, it emphasizes the fact that slavery is prohibited and says that any cases that come to light are vigorously punished.

Despite the shocking stories and hard-hitting statistics about the prevalence of slavery, there are positive developments afoot. ‘The anti-slavery movement in Mauritania is becoming bigger and bigger and that really keeps me optimistic,’ says Saidou Wane, a Mauritanian human rights activist based in the US. ‘There is progress being made: people are waking up and starting to understand the issue. And it’s happening across the board, with some Arabs [White Moors] getting involved, too.

Festivals of resistance in the West Bank

Mohammed Nawjaa of the Susiya community in front of a tent

Mohammed Nawjaa of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills - another village under threat of demolition. Eoghan Rice/Trocaire under a Creative Commons Licence

A festive atmosphere reigned in Khallet Athaba, a tiny village in the South Hebron Hills. Flurries of activity centred around a large makeshift tent that had been erected on a dusty hilltop beside the village. Inside the tent, a couple of hundred plastic chairs were arranged in rows, facing a small stage. There were people from all sections of Palestinian society represented, including a large group of women and children, small knots of teenage boys and clusters of traditionally dressed men.

This June gathering was for a nonviolent resistance festival against the Israeli Occupation in the West Bank. An Amnesty International document released on 3 July explained that the Israeli army plans to expel the residents of eight villages in the South Hebron Hills, including Khallet Athaba, to make way for a military training zone known as Firing Zone 918. Some 1,000 Palestinian residents in these villages are in danger of becoming homeless and losing their livelihoods. Israel’s High Court of Justice has scheduled a hearing on the planned expulsion for 2 September 2013.

Spearheaded by a popular Palestinian committee, the resistance event I attended was the sixth annual festival and marked the culmination of the annual children’s summer camp. Events such as this have become commonplace in the West Bank, where nonviolent resistance is gaining in popularity and becoming a powerful alternative to the politics of Hamas and Fatah.

Hafez Huraini, a member of the popular committee, explained what they hoped to achieve through the festival. ‘We want to send a strong message to everyone, Palestinians and Israelis, with our example: nonviolence is possible, is effective, and it is the only way to fight for justice, dignity and peace,’ he said.

It was the first time I had ever attended an event like this. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, with barren hills stretching as far as the eye could see, sparsely dotted with vegetation and small villages. But the presence of Israeli border police surveying the scene from a hilltop about 500 metres away was a physical reminder that this rural community is under threat.

A press release from Operation Dove, an Italian-based organization committed to finding nonviolent solutions to war and conflict, reported that the inhabitants of the villages repeatedly have their dwellings demolished, their crops destroyed and their water cisterns damaged by the Israeli army and settlers. This is said to be a violation of the principles of international law, which states that Israel must provide for the needs of the Palestinian population and prohibits them from demolishing any structure that has a civilian purpose.

Sipping rich, cardamom-infused coffee, I soaked up the celebratory atmosphere, complete with music, games, performances and short speeches. I listened carefully as people explained the realities of life in this seemingly remote area. Israeli soldiers are forcing Palestinians out of the rural 60 per cent of the West Bank, an area that is officially known as Area C. Excuses for herding Palestinian communities off their land can include declaring an area a live-fire military zone or cordoning off land for an archaeological dig. Evictions generally begin with the confiscation of land followed by the establishment of Israeli settlements and then setting up checkpoints in the area.

One of the members of Operation Dove, who asked not to be named for security reasons, gave a rousing speech at the festival and urged the Palestinian community not to give up. ‘Every time I come here I see positive changes due to your unity and nonviolent struggle,’ he said. ‘The personal commitment of people involved in nonviolent resistance has grown and today we are celebrating for this reason. Don’t stop now!’

The deadly scale of trafficking in the Sinai

View of part of Sinai Peninsula
The Sinai Peninsula has become especially dangerous for refugees fleeing Eritrea Thomas Depenbusch, under a CC License

‘He was bleeding all over. After more beatings, they poured petrol on him and set him on fire. After he died, they left his body in the room with us until it became rotten and worms started crawling. They forced all of us in turns to hold him.’

These are the words of an Eritrean trafficking survivor in the Sinai, speaking to Amnesty International. He is sharing a first-hand account of what happened to another trafficking victim whose family could not afford to pay the ransom fee demanded by his captors.

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. The kidnapping and exploitation of asylum seekers and refugees in the Sinai, largely by nomadic border groups, is rampant.

Smuggled across borders for extortionate sums, or kidnapped from refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, many refugees end up being held hostage in purpose-built facilities near the Israeli border. Eritreans – fleeing their country’s oppressive regime – constitute about 95 per cent of these hostages. The other 5 per cent is made up of Sudanese, Ethiopians and Somalis.

Testimonies gathered by Amnesty International and other human rights groups show that the individuals held captive are being subjected to extreme violence and cruelty, including rape, beatings, torture, organ harvesting and death.

Khataza Gondwe of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) says that the families of the captives are forced to listen to their screams via the telephone and send ransoms of up to $40,000 to set them free. ‘Small wonder people hearing the screams sell everything they have and borrow to the hilt to pay the ransom and end such appalling suffering,’ she adds.

This terrible phenomenon, which has been occurring since 2009, has intensified as traditional routes to Europe (via Libya and Tunisia) have become progressively more difficult, necessitating passage through the Sinai instead.

Gondwe points out that Eritrea is often referred to as the North Korea of Africa: ‘A consequence of this wide ranging and severe repression is the fuelling of a mass exodus, with Eritreans constituting one of the largest populations of refugees per capita,’ she explains.

In a sinister twist, Gondwe says that alongside their shoot-to-kill border policy certain Eritrean officials benefit financially from the covert trafficking of citizens. For instance, in the 2012 UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group report, an Eritrean General (General Kifle) was cited as one of those responsible for the smuggling of people and weaponry into the Gaza Strip.

In addition, instability and lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula has created a fertile environment for crime and trafficking. The situation has further deteriorated since the Egyptian revolution, causing the region to become even more marginalized and dangerous.

It is estimated that 7,000 refugees have been abused and 4,000 have lost their lives in this crisis.

At a recent conference held at Cardiff’s Welsh Centre for International Affairs, members of the Eritrean community were adamant that awareness should be raised about the tragic human rights abuses happening in the Sinai.

Yet rhetoric must be translated into mobilization, as Khataza points out: ‘Only sustained and robust action locally and internationally will assist in dismantling these criminal syndicates responsible for human and organ trafficking in the Sinai, and setting these captives free.’

Craftivists stitch against hunger

Crafted jigsaw pieces
Craftivist are making jigsaw pieces for action on hunger Robin Prime

Picture a giant art installation composed of large, colourful, fabric jigsaw pieces emblazoned with hand-stitched messages. Look more closely and you’ll be able to read some of these messages – sentiments like, ‘Evil triumphs when good people do nothing’, ‘No act of kindness however small is ever wasted’, and ‘Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim’.

This will be the scene at the People’s History Museum in Manchester on Friday 1 March. Created by the Craftivist Collective, this provocative piece of artwork is being showcased to raise awareness about world hunger and injustice and to support Save the Children’s Race Against Hunger campaign

With the 2013 G8 summit to be hosted by the UK  in June, craftivists are determined to challenge the government to use its power and influence to tackle global poverty and injustice.

Direct, down-to-earth and hardworking, 29-year-old Sarah Corbett is the founder of the Craftivist Collective, based in London. She explains the concept of Craftivism as: ‘Activism using crafts – the craft’s the tool and the activism is the priority.’

A Craftivist stitch-in
A Craftivist stitch-in Robin Prime

Stemming from a reaction to ‘angry activism’, Sarah started stitching mini protest banners in 2008 and blogging about it under the name of ‘The Lonely Craftivist’. It wasn’t long before others started asking if they could join in, which heralded the beginning of the Craftivist Collective.

Now heading up what has become a global collective movement, Sarah recently gave up her job to devote herself to full-time Craftivism. ‘Our manifesto is to expose the scandal of global poverty and human rights injustices through the power of craft and public art,’ she says. ‘We don’t tell people what to do – we provoke them to think and have a discussion.’

This is the idea behind the collective’s latest endeavour: The Jigsaw Project (#imapiece), launched on World Food Day (16 October 2012). Each piece of the puzzle has been stitched by individual craftivists, carrying messages that remind us we can all improve the world and help make it a more beautiful place.

The jigsaw pieces have been created at a number of different ‘stitch-ins’ across Britain. Sarah says that every event has been different, with some taking place in schools and community centres, others in people’s houses with family members or friends and lots of people doing it solo.

Craftivists were also encouraged to make two other jigsaw pieces – one to keep for themselves and one to send to their local MP. ‘It’s engaging MPs in a respectful, encouraging way rather than telling them what to do and think,’ Sarah explains. ‘And it also stops them from having the excuse of just cutting and pasting general answers.’

The jigsaw project has been a slow burner – people have been stitching away since October – allowing time to think deeply about the issues. The 1 March showcase is not the last we will be seeing of the jigsaw artwork. Craftivists in Belfast are currently searching for a venue in which to display the installation when the G8 comes to town in June.

‘Even though we’re a tiny island [in Britain], lots of countries still look to us as world leaders,’ Sarah says. ‘So if we can get our country to make world hunger and poverty a priority at the G8, it will make a huge difference.’

The #imapiece exhibition will be at the People’s History Museum in Manchester on Friday 1 March. The artwork is being showcased between 6.00 and 8.00pm.

To find out more about the Craftvism, the Jigsaw Project and the Race Against Hunger campaign, go to the Craftivist Collective website.