NOUAKCHOTT, Nov 20, 2007 (AFP) – President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi on Tuesday urged Mauritanians to embrace genuine reconciliation ahead of the return of thousands of refugees who fled ethnic unrest nearly two decades ago.
« We are not looking at opening old wounds, but rather to cure them. We don’t seek to settle scores, but to get rid of injustices and reconcile the hearts, » said Abdallahi. Mauritanians should turn a page on the past, he added.
He was speaking at the start of a three-day campaign to raise awareness among Mauritanians at home about the return of some 24,000 compatriots, who are to be repatriated from nearby Senegal in the coming weeks.
Tens of thousands of black Mauritanians were deported, mostly to Senegal, during ethnic violence between 1989 and 1991. About 24,000 continued to live in makeshift settlements along the border of the two countries.
Last week, Senegal and the UN refugee agency signed an agreement in Nouakchott on the return of the refugees. Officials still have to settle the details of how the repatriation will be managed and how the returnees will be reintegrated into society after nearly two decades from home.
There are also unresolved ethnic tensions that need to be dealt with. They date from the time of the former autocratic regime of ousted leader Maaouiya Ould Taya, whose regime, which lasted from 1984 to 2005, was hostile to the black Mauritanian community.
Abdallahi was voted into office in the country’s first democratic elections in March following a junta-led transitional period of power.
In his address, he asked for support from all Mauritanians « to turn a page on the past in order to build a new Mauritania ». His priority was to restore the rights of Mauritanians who had faced injustices in their own country, he said.
The UNHCR plans to help move some 7,000 of those who sought exile in Senegal before the end of the year and the remaining 17,000 next year.
A vast but sparsely populated desert country, Mauritania stretches across black west Africa and Arab north Africa. The fair-skinned Arabic speaking Moorish community has formed the ruling elite since independence from France in 1960. The dark-skinned African minority make up around a fifth of the 3.1 million people.