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The slaves next door

Committee works with people who have escaped from abusive employers to rebuild their lives.

LES ULIS, France — Yasmina was 12 years old when an aunt and uncle brought her to France from Mali to be a live-in nanny to their children. Once she was settled in a suburb near Paris, her new life consisted of 16 hours of household chores and regular beatings with electric cables. The first time she ran away, the couple found her, brought her home, stripped her nude, tied her hands behind her back and beat her bloody.

“My aunt put pepper on my wounds and also rubbed it in into my vagina,” according to Yasmina’s testimony, documented by the Paris-based Committee Against Modern Slavery, a 15-year-old organization that to date has helped more than 500 victims reclaim their lives and identities once they have escaped from their captors.

In one horrifying example after another, summaries of domestic slavery cases like Yasmina’s, with quotations from the victims, were displayed on square poster boards alongside a stark image of the building where the abuse allegedly occurred. Part of a public awareness campaign, the exhibit currently located at a community center in Les Ulis, a southwestern suburb located about 14 miles from Paris, coincided with activities leading up to the commemoration of the 1848 abolition of slavery in France. Since 2006, May 10 has been observed as a national day of remembrance.

Although slavery is illegal in most of the world, an estimated 27 million people live in bondage, according to Free the Slaves, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit group working to eradicate the phenomenon globally.

That the public was even reading about Yasmina and the other cases meant that the women had escaped and had sought help, said Sophia Lakhdar, director of the committee which helps victims deal with the legal administrative, medical and emotional aspects of their lives after captivity. Although the cases shown were long resolved — and in some cases, the abusers punished — the victims' last names were withheld to protect their identities.

“Next door to you, there may be people being exploited” is the point of the campaign, said Lakhdar, 34, who has a legal background and has been working with the anti-slavery organization for more than a year. In France, 334 cases were brought to the committee’s attention in 2007 and of those the group opened 25 new cases. In 2008, out of 191 alerts, including that of 31 men, the committee opened 33 new cases. So far this year the organization has been notified 79 times about possible slavery cases.

Alerts can come anonymously from neighbors, from other associations or social workers. Five criteria help initially determine whether a case of human bondage exists. In addition to being forced to work for little or no pay, victims often live under the tyranny of an employer who maintains a chokehold on the person’s life. In almost all the cases, the victims’ passports and identity papers have been confiscated, making it difficult for them to leave, and contact with family or anyone outside the home has been cut off, leaving the employer as the only conduit to the outside world.