'It was supposed to be a school'

Story highlights

  • At some Quranic schools in Senegal, children are being held against their will
  • Photographer Mario Cruz is trying to raise awareness about the problem

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The horrors are hidden behind the walls of schools.

One child is being whipped by an instructor for not earning him enough money. Tears run down another's face. There are prison-bar windows. A shackle on a boy's ankle.
    These are the terrifying realities photographer Mario Cruz documented on a month-and-a-half-long reporting trip to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa.
    "It was supposed to be a school, (but) it's nothing like that," he said. "It's a place of torture, really."
    With the help of charitable organizations that are working to help these enslaved boys, who generally are ages 5 to 15, Cruz gained rare access to some corrupt Quranic schools in Senegal. His photos -- shot in stark black and white -- are helping to raise awareness about an abhorrent practice of holding students against their will and forcing them to earn money for their supposed teachers.
    Photographer Mario Cruz
    It's a practice that should be recognized for what it is: slavery.
    Years ago, Cruz told me, these schools were set up with the purpose of offering a religious education at little or no cost to the students' parents.
    Over time, however, the schools have become corrupted to the point that, according to Cruz, it's now more difficult to find an upstanding school than one that treats its pupils as slaves.
    Supposed teachers demand the students spend their days on the streets begging for money. If the students don't bring back $3 to $4 per day -- which is nearly impossible given the number of students asked to do this and the limited resources of people in Senegal -- then the students often are beaten or raped, according to Cruz. The photographer told me students also are forced to memorize verses from the Quran and can be beaten for failing to do so.
    Parents can be tricked into giving their children to the schools.
    "Sometimes the marabout (teacher) knocks on doors and says, 'If you give us your son, we'll give him a proper education,' " Cruz told me. "These people are really, really poor. They don't have money for an education, so after a while they trust them.

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    "They give away their sons, but after a while they never see them again."
    Cruz found that others are kidnapped and trafficked from neighboring Guinea-Bissau.
    Sadly, some of the students eventually become teachers and slave masters, he said. They become indoctrinated in the cycle of abuse and violence.
    "The only thing they know," Cruz told me, "is fear and violence."
    I asked how widespread the practice is, and Cruz told me there are estimated to be 30,000 talibé (student) slaves in the Dakar region of Senegal alone. He considers that a lowball figure.
    Eradicating the system will not be easy.
    Nonprofits in and outside Senegal need support, he said. Human Rights Watch works on this issue, as does a local group, Maison de la Gare, in St. Louis, Senegal.
    Cruz told me Senegalese officials have considered and rejected legislation banning the talibé system outright and criminalizing the act of holding students in this specific way. He also accused the police and legal system of failing to prosecute the slave-holding teachers.
    If he could find these schools, he said, then the police can, too.
    I reached out to the Senegalese ambassador to the United States for comment.
    "I am shocked and saddened every time I learn about a reported case of child abuse in some (Quranic) schools in Senegal. Some try to justify mistreatment by tradition but these claims are baseless," Ambassador Babacar Diagne said in an e-mail. "The Government of Senegal attaches great importance to the protection of human rights, particularly those of children. (Much) progress (has) been achieved, although many challenges remain."
    I asked whether the legal system gives these schools a pass.
    The ambassador highlighted the fact that corporal punishment is illegal in schools in Senegal and has adopted a "national strategy for child protection." Legal cases are heard when they are initiated by teachers or students in the schools, he said.
    It's clear from Cruz's reporting, however, that far too few of these cases are coming to light and that laws against "corporal punishment" are not adequately protecting students.
    The consequence: Slavery is condemned in name but allowed to continue in reality.
    My hope is that Cruz's stark photos will be viewed far and wide and that they will contribute to mounting pressure on the Senegalese government to end these unthinkable crimes.