By John D. Sutter, CNN
(CNN) - On Sunday, CNN Digital released a special report called "Slavery's Last Stronghold." It focuses on current-day slavery in Mauritania, a West African country where an estimated 10% to 20% of people are enslaved. In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery. It didn't make owning a person a crime until 2007.
Work on this story started 11 months ago, after we stumbled upon a few of those statistics. As part of The CNN Freedom Project, a multi-year effort to report on modern slavery, we began talking with anti-slavery organizations and government workers who deal with Mauritania in hopes that we could get a sense of what life is like in this place where slavery is so shockingly common. Eventually we found SOS Slaves, an abolitionist group in Mauritania that was founded by a former slave owner and a man whose family was enslaved.
Think about that for a second: A slave and a slave owner came together to start an organization that is now trying to liberate people in a place where slavery is arguably more intractable and more common than anywhere else on Earth. It's such a powerful symbol of hope, cooperation and reconciliation. Of putting aside differences for the greater good.
We wanted to meet these men and tell their stories.
It wouldn't be easy. Mauritania doesn't allow foreign journalists to go to the country to report on slavery. We had to enter with permission to report another story and then conduct our research for this project covertly. A hired security guard accompanied videographer Edythe McNamee and me on the trip. A government minder was assigned to follow our team. We had to try to distract him while we conducted interviews; we'd been warned that if we were found talking with people about slavery we would be arrested or kicked out of the country.
All the while, we were driven by a specific goal: To help Mauritania eradicate slavery. Like other Freedom Project articles and videos that have been featured on this blog, on CNN.com and on television, this report aims to shine a spotlight on the horrors of modern-day slavery and to amplify the voices of slavery's victims. The goal isn't to shame Mauritania for being a vestige of old-world, descendent-based slavery. It's to start a conversation that could create change.
When we arrived in West Africa in December, we weren't sure what to expect. But, over the course of the 8-day journey, we fell in love with the country in a bizarre way. It's a place of agonizing beauty - one that's easy to love and hate in the same thought. It's frustrating. It's maddening. But it's worth caring about. Despite the brutal forms of slavery there - witness the story of the woman shown in the photo above who escaped only in 2010 - there's reason to believe Mauritania can improve.