This village seems typical of villages in northern Senegal – with thatched huts, women cooking on outdoor fires, children playing and men sitting under trees drinking sweet tea.
Yet few of the Mauritanians living here call it home. It is a refugee camp, and at best an artificial reality – an earnest attempt by a people, driven out of their homes nearly 20 years ago, to make a life in an unknown land.
Despite their lack of connection to Senegal, refugees say their home is not in Mauritania either. “We are foreigners here as well as in our own land,” said one.
In 1989, Moorish Mauritanians drove as many as 70,000 black Mauritanians from their country. Now, the newly elected Mauritanian government, headed by Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, says it will do all it can to help the remaining 20,000 to return.
In July, Abdallahi sent a high-level delegation to meet representatives of the Mauritianians still scattered in more than 200 refugee camps in the Senegal River Valley bordering Mauritania.
“This suffering you have endured for these long years must end,” head of the delegation of Mauritania’s Secretary of State in the President’s office, Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghef, told the refugees, according to an AFP report. “[The repatriation] will allow each one of you to be restored the rights of a Mauritanian citizen, to recover your property in Mauritania and live in dignity in your country.”
According to refugees, this may be easier said than done. “I have been drained of my identity and worn down as a human being,” Babocar Mbodj, a refugee told IRIN. “I am not Senegalese, and I am not Mauritanian.”
Mbodj spoke of the right that every human being should have to a nationality. “I did not fully realise its importance until I lost that right.”
He said he recognises that technically he is still a Mauritanian yet he, like most in his community, feels he belongs to no land. “Something so small as a document in your pocket, stating your nationality, has a great effect on who you feel you are as a person.”
This subtle form of suffering is easy to overlook on a continent rife with privation. Physically, the living standard of the refugees is only marginally worse than the average Senegalese villager. What these people struggle with is instead largely psychological – obliterated pasts, and futures they are struggling to imagine.
Even their classification as a stateless people is unclear.
The 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines statelessness as the lack of a legal bond of nationality with any state. Eighteen years ago, Mauritanian government officials allegedly collected and destroyed black Mauritanians’ identity papers before dumping them en masse at the border with Senegal. Most left the country with no possessions and some without shoes.
In the eyes of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), these people do not fit the definition of stateless. “For the UNHCR, the Mauritanian refugees’ nationality is not in question,” UNHCR’s regional legal adviser Mahoua Bamba Parums told IRIN. “They were all recognised as ‘prima facie’ refugees by the Senegalese government in 1989. It is therefore not correct to say that they are stateless.”
The non-governmental organisation Refugees International has at times called them “stateless”. “Loosely, the definition of statelessness [implies] that no government is really looking out for these people,” said Maureen Lynch, senior advocate on stateless initiatives for Refugees International.
“The refugees are living in conditions which resemble statelessness,” she added, but was careful not to contradict UNHCR. “As a humanitarian organisation, we defer to UNHCR’s definition.”
Refugees – without receiving assistance
UNHCR stopped assistance to the refugees in 1998 when funding ran dry. “With a long-lasting crisis like this it is hard to keep donors’ attention,” Parums told IRIN.
“It’s fine to call us refugees, but refugees receive assistance,” said Mariame Sira Coumba, a refugee and mother of three at one of the camps.
Without the guarantee of assistance, few have gone through the annual process of renewing their refugee cards which requires a costly 500km journey to the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
“What can we do with these refugee cards?” asked Mbodj. “These cards imply that someone is taking care of you because you have no other means. No one is taking care of us,” he said. “For all these years, we’ve had neither protection nor rights under any government.”
Even with refugee cards, refugees are denied the formal sector jobs and social services available to Senegalese citizens, he said.
“Our lives are not in any immediate danger as with many other refugees, we understand that. However, to have been left here for so long by our government, then finally by UNHCR, just exacerbated our feelings of hopelessness. We spent years waiting in vain for something to change,” said Ly Ousmane Mombo, a refugee living in Ndioum.
“That is no way to live.”
Case study: A family in limbo
Babocar Mbodj was a park ranger in Mauritania before he was expelled 18 years ago. Since then he has lived in the refugee camp at Dagana with his wife, one child and sister, selling vegetables from a little garden next to his house. “We are all struggling to create a semblance of a life here,” he said.
Mbodj’s wife Fatou told IRIN of the pain she feels watching surrounding Senegalese villages receive government assistance and the trouble she has had explaining to her 13 year old son, Abdou, which country he belongs to. “Last week, he told me he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be Mauritanian,” she said.
Abdou has attended school in the camp on and off for six years but schools for the refugee children lack basics. “Education is a right, it gives children the confidence and skills they need to survive. The potential of this generation of Mauritanian children has been wasted in these camps,” Fatou said.
Abdou told IRIN he sees himself as Mauritanian but knows he is not like the Senegalese children he interacts with. “I feel different from them, but don’t really know if I belong in Mauritania. I’ve been here my whole life.”
Mbodj said he fears Abdou will also feel disconnected from Mauritanian children if the family is eventually repatriated. “Though the children in these camps are told they are Mauritanian, they have never seen the country. What they have heard of Mauritania is mostly violence and racism.”
Refugee leaders declared the Mauritanian government’s announcement a victory for the community, asking that repatriation be handled by the UNHCR to ensure the safety and continued well-being of refugees after their return to Mauritania.
Though refugees generally welcomed the decision, they described their lives with palpable frustration towards the Mauritanian government.
“Are we supposed to celebrate this decision after 18 years of this strange life? It’s taken Mauritania too long to agree to restore our rights,” Mbodj told IRIN.
Mbodj told IRIN of a house and other property he owned in Mauritania, taken over by Moorish Mauritanians almost immediately after the mass expulsion. Most refugees are uncertain of the status of their property and jobs in Mauritania, especially those in the informal sector.
“We were forced out with nothing. That is the typical state of a refugee, but now we’ve lived 18 years without anything from the lives we’d worked so hard to build in Mauritania. I was proud of my home and what I was able to provide for my family, and it was gone in a second,” he said.
“Our lives were violated – Arab Mauritanians moved into our homes and took our jobs. I feel helpless, thinking about what was taken from me.”
All refugees interviewed emphasized the need for a truth and reconciliation commission, to identify the victims and perpetrators of the border conflict with Senegal. “Eighteen years of statelessness should be answered for. The events of 1989 did not spark genocide, like in Rwanda, but they alienated an entire generation of black Mauritanians. Perhaps our testimony will save our grandchildren from this same empty fate,” said Mbodj.
When asked if he had any fear of returning home, Mbodj shook his head. “Though life will be hard in Mauritania, it is still our home.”
Twenty years of the unclear definition and vague belonging has strangely shaped this community. But a consensus is evident in these camps – even a trying existence in Mauritania is better than the uncertainty of the past two decades.
Mbodj puts it plainly: “Going back gives us something to centre on – a country, dignity and after all these years, an identity.”