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Photos: Slavery's last stronghold
11:20 AM ET, Tue May 31, 2016
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In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery.
The Saharan nation in West Africa has one of the highest proportions of enslaved people.
CNN traveled to Mauritania in December 2011; foreign journalists aren't allowed to talk about slavery, and the reporters had to conduct many interviews at night and in secret.
Slaves typically aren't bought and sold in Mauritania; they're born into slavery.
Lighter-skinned Arab people enslaved darker-skinned sub-Saharan Africans centuries ago. Some of those ties remain intact.
The activist group SOS Slaves was formed in Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital, in 1995. It works to free people and is trying to bring legal cases against slave masters.
A former slave owner, Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane, co-founded the abolitionist group. He partnered with Boubacar Messaoud, whose family was enslaved.
Moulkheir Mint Yarba escaped slavery in 2010. She says all her children are the result of rape by her master.
Government officials deny slavery is real. "All people are free in Mauritania and this phenomenon (of slavery) no longer exists," said one official.
Life in Mauritania is hard for both slaves and some slave masters. Forty-four percent of people live on less than $2 per day.
Escaped slaves learn to sew, cook and braid hair at a rare training center in Nouakchott.
"This is another way to liberate them," says the center's director.
SOS Slaves, the abolitionist group, runs the school with funding from international agencies.
In a city market, locals purchase brightly colored fabric to make dresses and headscarves.
In Atar, the sand dunes give way to mountains and plateaus.
Biram Dah Abeid runs an abolitionist group called IRA Mauritania. He says he's been arrested and tortured for speaking out.
Yebawa Ould Keihel was liberated from slavery years ago but still refers to his former masters as family.
Residents of so-called slave villages don't work in the homes of their masters. But masters may still exercise property rights over them.