Conflict in Mauritania

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A second village

After fleeing the political unrest and racism of their home countries in West Africa, a group of immigrants has found a community of kindred spirits, and a land of opportunity, in Steamboat Springs.

Country facts

■ Infant mortality rate:

5.89 percent

■ Female life expectancy:

63 years

■ Male life expectancy:

59 years

■ Female literacy:

51.2 percent

■ Male literacy:

64.9 percent

In the flat Western plains of the Sahara Desert, 3.36 million Mauritanians weather dusty, dry and hot conditions.

In Mauritania — which is nearly four times the size of Colorado — the ground is laden with iron ore deposits, and the Atlantic waters on the country’s west coast hold some of the richest fisheries in the world, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.

Yet 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, and many live in fear of the widespread human rights issues of racism, slavery and human trafficking that tear apart families and communities.

Through a history filled with political turmoil, the black Afro-Mauritanians, like the men who moved to Steamboat Springs, have weathered decades of oppression.

Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960, and 25 years later, Prime Minister Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya seized power in a coup, according to the World Factbook. His rule was militaristic and marred by prejudice against Afro-Mauritanians, who were abused and run out of the country. They fled to bordering countries, including Senegal and Mali.

In 2005 after a bloodless coup, it looked like democratic rule could prevail, but an elected president’s term lasted just a year before Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz took power and later was elected president.

The United States condemned both coups and suspended nonhumanitarian aid after the 2008 coup, which was reinstated after Aziz officially was elected, according to the U.S. State Department.

The State Department still has concerns: In the past two years, Mauritania has risen from a Tier 3 human-trafficking country — the worst rating — to a Tier 2 watch list country as efforts during the past two years have begun to address the issue of slavery. According to the State Department, “A respected Mauritanian NGO estimates slavery may affect up to 20 percent of the population in both rural and urban settings.”

“Mauritania is a source and destination country for men, women and children subjected to conditions of forced labor and sex trafficking,” according to the CIA’s profile on Mauritania. “Women, men and children from traditional slave castes are subjected to slavery-related practices rooted in ancestral master-slave relationships.”

While the government is beginning to address human rights issues, a growing problem in the country is the threat of al-Qaida, which has claimed responsibility for attacks, kidnappings and suicide bombs in Mauritania during the past several years.

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