‘Forgotten’ black Mauritanian refugees call for justice

Published: 12/Nov/2007
Source: Thomson Reuters

By Daniel Flynn

N’DIOUM, Senegal, July 27 (Reuters) – Driven from his home because of the colour of his skin, Alpha Sow is one of 20,000 black Mauritanians stranded in camps in northern Senegal for the last 18 years. Now they hope to return home and win justice.

Hundreds of black Mauritanians were killed and tens of thousands lost everything in the 1989 ethnic purges by the Arab-dominated government of former dictator Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya in the West African desert state. For years their story was one of Africa’s forgotten refugee sagas, but now a democratically-elected government in Mauritania has invited them to return and promised them equal rights.

“We are happy, but we know racism still exists and we will return with fear,” said Sow, head of the dusty N’dioum refugee camp which houses some 3,000 black Mauritanians in mud huts. “Before we go back, we want guarantees of compensation for lost lands, jobs and houses,” said the 65-year-old, once a wealthy merchant. “We want justice. Those who committed murder must be tried.”

Refugees at N’dioum, almost all from the Fula tribe of pastoralists spread throughout West Africa, presented a visiting delegation from Mauritania last week with a list of their demands, including for trials for human rights abuses.

Harouna Samba’s case is typical. His nephews were abducted into slavery and his brother died after two days of beatings by Moorish neighbours who stole his lands and livestock. “If they provide guarantees, then I will go back. If not, then I won’t,” he said, to nods from a circle of refugees hidden from the blazing sun by a thatched wooden shelter.


So far, Mauritania has not answered the refugees’ demands, but a draft tripartite agreement with Senegal and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) guarantees citizenship rights and security for the refugees. UNHCR officials aim to start repatriations in early October, after the month-long Muslim fast of Ramadan. They expect roughly 60 percent of the Mauritanians to have returned when the $1.6 million programme concludes at the end of 2008. The United Nations will provide transport and food for the refugees but officials expect problems.

Not only will refugees face a struggle to reclaim their property, but many of their children have never seen Mauritania and many do not speak its Hassaniya tongue. In neighbouring Mali, where there are some 6,000 refugees integrated into local society, most are expected to stay put.

“These black Mauritanians were forgotten refugees. Until three months ago, no one talked about them: everyone was focused on Darfur, the Great Lakes, Somalia,” said Francis Kpatinde, regional information officer for UNHCR. “But this situation is important and complex: it is connected to race, water and land shortages. It encapsulates many of the problems of contemporary Africa,” said Kpatinde.

In total, some 80,000 black Mauritanians were expelled when Taya’s government took advantage of border disputes with Senegal over grazing and fishing rights to conduct an ethnic purge. Since then, the majority have drifted back to Mauritania, but without compensation or protection. Some were even tortured and deported again.

Taya ruled the Saharan nation for two decades with an iron fist, oppressing the black minority which makes up nearly a third of the 3 million population. He was toppled in a bloodless coup in 2005 by his security chief Ely Ould Mohamed Vall. Taya has taken refuge in Qatar, while Vall has won plaudits for tackling graft and guiding the nation to presidential elections in March.

But many refugees say he is to blame for their plight. “If you talk of Taya, you are also talking about Vall. They are one and the same,” said refugee Amadou Adama Ba. “Both should face trial as the highest responsible for the massacres.”


Mauritanian President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who took office in April after the democratic transition, has promised to promote racial harmony and social justice in the Islamic Republic. Many black Mauritanians are sceptical. Although banned by decree since 1981, rights groups say that hundreds of thousands of Mauritanians are still enslaved — the world’s highest proportion of slaves in a population.

The government is drafting a law to make owning slaves a criminal offence punishable by up to 30 years in prison, but lobby group Anti-Slavery International has said the legislation ignores forced marriage, indentured labour and debt bondage.

“Abdallahi has good intentions but the people under him have not changed … they are all Moors,” said Ibrahim Hamadi Sy, sitting in the huddle of refugees. “We know there is still racism, but we must go home. We are tired of being here.”

Read on Reliefweb.
Themes: Nationality and Refugees
Regions: Mauritania, Senegal
Year: 2007