The slaves next door

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.

Lakhdar said she is asked often, by police for instance, why a person doesn’t leave the home when presented with the chance, while the family is on vacation or while out running an errand like picking up a child from school.

“The barriers can be mental,” she said. Victims are often told they’ll be arrested for being in the country illegally if caught by police. Most often, the abused know their abusers and likely come from the same social circle, village or even family. In cases involving high-ranking officials, the enslavement might occur with impunity because of diplomatic immunity. Often wives, who are more apt to deal with household matters, are complicit in the abuse against other women, Lakhdar said.

In France, Lakhdar said about 10 to 20 percent of the cases she sees also involve sexual abuse and rape. Physical abuse can include smashing teeth, torturing with pepper, hitting with high heels on the arms and burning with cigarettes. Mental abuse can range from depriving a person of food, or only allowing her to eat only scraps; forcing her to sleep on the ground, while the rest of the household sleeps in beds, or allowing her to bathe only once or twice per week.

“I never imagined there were such cases in France,” said Gillaume Herbaut, a French photojournalist whose work documenting the victims as a newspaper assignment turned into an ongoing project with Lakhdar and the committee. His series, which included an award-winning image of a masked victim in a forest, will be part of a future public awareness campaign. He said the unusual setting was a metaphor for the victims he met and spoke to for hours.

“They’re lost when they’re enslaved, and they’re lost when they are free,” he said. “They have to relearn freedom.”

Lakhdar said one case that struck her particularly was that of a 17-year-old girl whose brother essentially sold her to her abusers on the pretense that she would receive job training in France. After months of abuse and of being raped, the young woman was so desperate to escape that she tried to kill herself by drinking cleaning products. Even as she vomited violently for three days, she was obliged to continue working. She is now 21 and the committee is handling her case.

“She’s had a bad start in life,” Lakhdar said. “That one really marked me.”

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