ALONG the street that leads to the iconic Eiffel Tower, they filled it side to side, stretching back through the famous Trocadero district of Paris.
Human rights lawyers walked alongside former soldiers, while some women wore pictures of loved ones around their necks. They claim the deceased were killed by the police.
As they march, they shout anti-government slogans.
They are members of the Haratin tribe who make up the majority of slaves in Mauritania.
Recently, they have been busy with protests, the latest which coincided with the United Nations annual day to end slavery, which is celebrated annually on December 2. Most of UN events were around forced labour in sweat shops or factories where workers are locked up to make footballs or soccer boots.
Focus was also on the increasing number of men and women forced into sex trade.
“In Mauritania it’s more like the dark ages,” says Thomas Ndiaye who has been involved from the start in the Paris protests.
“Ours was the last country on earth to criminalize slavery just a decade back, but we still have thousands in bondage.”
There is a scale for most things: corruption, press freedom, torture and oppression. Mauritania does badly in all of them, but on the Global Slavery Index it’s scored top place the past five years.
In the 1300s, the Arabs colonised much of West Africa, setting off a leap in everything from books and medicine to roads and astronomy. They also brought the Koran and, today, Muslim is the official religion of Mauritania.
Converting to another faith brings the death penalty.
The original black inhabitants are still the majority, even though few reach officer level in the police or army and they are largely absent from government in the provinces, or in the capital, Nouakchott.
Protests happen late afternoon when exiles have finished work. It is winter. Darkness comes early, rain is common and the temperatures are close to freezing.
No one seems deterred as they follow a set route, winding from the Eiffel Tower to the Mauritanian Embassy in Paris as Ndiaye walks at the front on his crutches.
“Aged two, I was struck with polio. It left me like this,” he said. “It also taught me that life is worth fighting for. So is freedom.”
The African Union may be silent on most things, but they do not like coups, as the Zimbabwe army found when they placed then-president, Robert Mugabe, under house arrest.
The AU had for decades put up with political murder and stolen elections in Zimbabwe but within 24 hours they condemned the military action in Harare and called for a return to order.
For their part, the army never actually deposed Mugabe, but waited until, stripped of power, he resigned.
The AU was just as vocal in 2008 when General Mohamed Aziz overthrew the democratically elected government in Nouakchott.
Aziz promised elections but his critics say the ballot was rigged and, at the most recent poll in 2014, he won 82 percent of the vote.
“So must the big powers at the UN, led by France and the USA, but also Britain. Russia and China need to add their voice.”
While a terror threat remains in West Africa, it will not be that easy but the Mauritanians say they will not give up either.
By the end of the march temperatures are at zero degrees. Posters bearing photos of Mr Aziz are set alight and those without gloves warm their hands on the fire.
More demonstrations are planned to demand free speech, elections, redress for past killings, crimes against humanity, corruption and slavery.
UN days to free those in chains – real or political – may come and go but it seems the exiles and their demands for justice and an end to the Aziz government are something Paris and the Mauritanian embassy in the former coloniser France will have to get used to. – CAJ News