UnclesThe mud huts of the African Sahara Desert. Camels, goats—and slaves. I had been recruited for security and as a translator to accompany a group of female Christian missionaries to the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria. The Sahrawi speak Spanish from when their homeland, West Sahara, was a Spanish colony and before they were driven into desert exile by the Moroccan invasion.

But. . . SLAVES?

At a camp near Tindouf where Saharawi refugees have lived for over 30 years, I became friends with a local named Zorgon and with a young African woman I’ll call Fatima, which is not her true name for reasons that will soon became apparent. From them, from my own observations, and from Nancy, one of the missionaries, I unraveled a shocking trail of slavery in the modern world that still engulfs many of the wretched of the earth.

I had noticed the presence of only a small number of black Africans in the Saharawi village. They lived in a group of hovels on the outskirts. Fatima and the other women came in every day to work in the Sahrawi tents and houses. They tended the goats and camels in pens outside the village.

Some men also labored in the village and were likewise kept isolated on the periphery of the camp. They were small men, old and worn-looking, faces expressionless against desert winds and blowing sand.

“This is where we keep the Moroccan prisoners of war,” Zorgon explained. “They have been here since 1975. The desert with no bars provides the best prison in the world.”

Slave masters, referred to as “uncles,” often made the women work in Tindouf as prostitutes for Algerian soldiers. A black slave woman must have sex with her master—or anyone he designates—at any time he chooses.

Zorgon and most of the others did not own slaves. Governing bodies known as Palisario kept the refugee camps largely closed to the outside world, making crimes such as slavery difficult to identify.

During the previous two centuries, hundreds of thousands of captives were transported across the Sahara caravan routes to be sold as slaves in the northern cities and then into Europe and elsewhere. England and the rest of the West began outlawing the slave trade from the 1700s. Slavery, however, continued to be an integral part of the Maghreb culture in the region of North Africa that includes Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, and what is now Southern Morocco.

Although slavery has been criminalized in the region of the Maghreb as recently as 2007, slaves are still bought and sold. Anti-slavery International estimates approximately a half-million men, women and children from Mauritania alone are presently slaves.

A close relationship exists between slavery, human trafficking, and organized Islamic terrorism. Slaves are a source of income for terrorist cells. Victims are transported through borders as unreported persons. Young Sahrawi men are given as much as $300 cash to drive across the desert to Mauritania or Mali to pick up people and transport them to other destinations where they become slaves. Even Europe is part of this pipeline. Once a person gets into Europe as an illegal immigrant, he or she can be “remote controlled” to work for his or her owner like the slaves they really are.

A slave may be severely punished, even slain, for revealing his status to outsiders.

Fatima was a very pretty young woman, very dark of skin and with fine aquiline features.

“Are you a slave?” I asked her.

Tears appeared in her eyes and she nodded almost imperceptibly.

Charles W. Sasser is author of two recently published novels about terrorism in Africa, novelizations of the popular History Channel mini-series SIX: SIX: Blood Brothers; and SIX: END GAME. Available at Amazon.com; BarnesandNoble.com; and at most book stores.