By Nellie Peyton
NOUAKCHOTT, Feb 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mbarka Mint Essatim was 23 when she discovered she was a slave.
Her master's driver saw her doing heavy lifting one day and asked if she was paid. When Mbarka said 'no', he told her the truth about the family she had always considered her own.
"I knew no one else and thought they were my family," she said of her masters, members of the light-skinned elite known as white Moors in the west African country of Mauritania.
She neither looked like them nor lived like them.
"I did not sleep with them in the same house. I was afraid of them, they struck me ... raped me. I wanted to be like children my age, going to school and studying. I was alone."
She tells the story coolly, sitting in a makeshift shack in the capital, Nouakchott, as if the child taken from her mother at five to wash dishes and scrub floors was someone else.
Essatim escaped in 2011 with the help of the driver, now her husband, but has no job or education and seven children to raise in a nation where her ethnic group occupies the bottom rung.
Life is no longer defined by servitude, punctuated by rapes or beatings, but Essatim struggles to feed her family.
About 40 million people globally are estimated by the United Nations to be modern-day slaves, but no data exists on how many are freed or escape - and face a fresh ordeal as they seek basic services and support to start life anew.
As Mauritania begins to emerge from a decades-old tradition of descent-based slavery, activists say tens of thousands are in Essatim's situation - struggling to get by each day.
Activists say improving their lot is harder than ending slavery, and just as crucial to repairing race relations and maintaining peace.
Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery - in 1981 - and criminalised it in 2007.
The Global Slavery Index, published annually by human rights group Walk Free Foundation, estimates that 2 percent of the population, or 90,000 Mauritanians, are still enslaved.
"For the slaves, all we can do is free them," said Alioune Sow, a member of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), which freed Essatim's children.
"We are not the state. We don't have funds," said pharmacist Sow, who donates medicine to ex-slaves when he can.
Although it is hard to identify victims - countless remain hidden within mansions - former slaves are easy to spot.
Rights groups say they amass in the poorest areas, often lacking running water, health centres and schools. Charities and government help, but reach just a fraction of those in need.
From her moment of liberty, Essatim said she was on her own.
"I was happy to be free... (but) I wanted to have a house to live in, and work for me and my husband," said the 30-year-old.
She still has neither.
FREEDOM BY LAW
Haratines, Mauritania's 'slave caste', make up nearly half the population, with the rest divided between white Moors and other black ethnic groups, according to Minority Rights Group, a London-based rights organisation.
Essatim was born a slave because her mother was one.
Raped by her master and his son as a teen, she had two girls who were given away to various members of the master's family.
"When I refused to let her (first-born) go, they took her by force," Essatim said. "All I could do was cry. I was afraid for her to face what I faced."
Mauritania's government denies slavery is widespread and says cases are rare and handled swiftly.
"We ban drugs, we ban terrorism, we ban arms trafficking. And it happens," said Hamdi Ould Mahjoub, head of Tadamoun - the national agency that deals with the impact of slavery. "This too (slavery) is a crime ... and there are people who do it."
Anti-slavery groups paint another picture, in which the state rarely supports victims and people of influence protect slave owners, who share their class.
There have been four prosecutions of slave owners since 2007, while anti-slavery activists have been jailed on multiple occasions - including Biram Dah Abeid, president of the IRA.
With enough evidence, the group can pressure the state to intervene, said Sow. But they have had little success advocating for harsher sentences and victim compensation, he added.
"When you compensate (the slave) he will have means, he'll have a start," said Sow. "We continue to insist on this point."
DREAMS OF SCHOOL
Essatim said her dream is education for her children - but it is fast slipping out of reach. Aged from five months to 16 years old, none has gone to school.
The older ones were barred for lack of identity papers, a common problem when the father is a slave master, activists say.
Her younger ones lacked school supplies and missed the registration deadline, said Essatim.
"The situation cannot change if they don't go to school," said Brahim Bilal Ramdhane, who started an organisation called Fondation Sahel to educate former slaves.
Born into slavery, Ramdhane went to school as his masters had no need of him. He later convinced his family to leave.
"It's the only solution. It might take 100 years, but that's what must be done," he said.
Mahjoub, director of Tadamoun agency, agreed that education was a priority and said government had created at least 60 schools since 2014, mostly for former slaves.
But inequality is still stark.
State schools for mainly Haratines often lack teachers or fall into disrepair; white Moors opt for private school.
Some ex-slaves also keep children at home because they do not think schooling is important, added Ramdhane.
Essatim makes a few dollars every now and then by sewing cloth into scarves to sell in the market. Her husband, Moctar Meimoune, finds work as a taxi driver every few months.
"Yesterday there was no dinner and today there won't be any," she said, her children gathered listlessly around.
The shack, four slat walls with a tent attachment, is not theirs. Meimoune fears eviction, and has no fallback.
"I do not ask the government to help me, because if it wanted to, it would have helped the people before me," he said.
All around sit similar shacks, separated from downtown by a long road cutting through a wasteland strewn with rubbish.
Some slum residents might be one or two generations out of slavery, said Sow, but have little to show for it.
"The case of Mbarka is the case of almost all black Mauritanians," he said. "We see black school, white school, black neighbourhood, white neighbourhood - that's apartheid in West Africa."
Yet after slavery, life feels good to Essatim.
"I feel happy. I'm with my children and that brings me happiness," she said, rocking her baby in her tiny, empty home.
(Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Lyndsay Griffiths Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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