By Liz Hazelton
PUBLISHED: 03:53 EST, 28 March 2012 | UPDATED: 09:17 EST, 28 March 2012
They perch awkwardly on an imitation rococo sofa in a nondescript room in the desert wastes of Mauritania.
And though the setting is incongruous, it is not as out of place as the horrific tale that Moulkheir Mint Yarba and her daughter Selek’ha have to tell.
Their story – of casual brutality, rape, slavery and the murder of their children – is one that does not belong to the 21st century.
But perhaps the most shocking part of their experience, told in a new CNN investigation Slavery’s Last Stronghold – is that it is not uncommon.
In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery. Owning another person did not become illegal until 2007 and there has only been one successful prosecution.
The United Nations estimates that between 10 and 20 per cent of the 3.4million population are enslaved.
Moulkheir, who is in her 40s, was born a slave and spent her childhood tending her master’s herds. When she reached puberty, her owner took her out into the fields and raped her for the first time.
In the next few years, she was to bear him five children – all of whom were also born into slavery.
Staggeringly, the tradition is so ingrained in the Mauritanian psyche that Moulkheir did not even question the way she was treated.
‘I was like an animal living with animals,’ she told CNN’s John D. Sutter when he visited the country in December as part of the network’s ongoing Freedom Project, which was set up to fight modern day slavery.
The cataclysmic event which was to shatter her existence forever took place on an ordinary afternoon when she returned home from tending the goats.
Lying dead in the dust outside the hut was her youngest child, a little girl who had only just started to crawl.
Moulkheir’s master – and the child’s father – had dumped the baby outside to die.
He told her she would work faster without the girl tied to her back.
Moulkheir asked to bury the baby. The man refused.
‘(He told me) her soul was a dog’s soul,’ she said.
She was only able to lay her child to rest at the end of the day, in a shallow grave with no burial rites.
‘I only had my tears to console me,’ she told the anti-slavery activists who eventually helped free her.
‘I cried a lot for my daughter and the situation I was in. Instead of understanding, they ordered me to shut up.’