After nearly a year the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Senegal and Mauritania have resumed the repatriation of Mauritanians to a country they call "home" but for now represents mostly uncertainty.
Resuming on 18 October, weekly UNHCR convoys are expected to bring some 2,500 people back to Mauritania by the end of the year.
The returnees are Mauritanians who have lived in Senegal since 1989, when ethnic clashes forced out tens of thousands of mostly black Africans in the country that has a mix of black Africans and people of Arab-Berber descent. Some fled to Mali but most to Senegal. Under a tripartite agreement among Senegal, Mauritania and UNHCR the refugees in Senegal began returning home in 2008; some 19,000 returned before the operation was put on hold.
There was “a period of adjustment”, Rufin Gilbert Loubaki, deputy representative at UNHCR West Africa, told IRIN. “On the other side [in Mauritania], reintegration takes time. The tripartite commission makes decisions regarding movement of refugees so all sides had to be ready.” A Mauritanian official would not comment on the reasons for the suspension. Mauritanians in Mali still await repatriation.
IRIN accompanied the first new group of 121 people from Senegalese villages to their home country:
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White trucks with the blue UNHCR logo weave through villages in northern Senegal, picking up luggage the evening before the journey.
Each person is allowed one bag. The luggage is marked in black or red felt pen: head of family’s name, name of Senegalese village of departure, and name of the destination in Mauritania.
In Ndiareme village, 25km from the northern Senegalese town of Richard Toll, young men sit waiting on plastic mats. Women and children sit under a tree, some women cooking rice.
Among the Mauritanians of all ages there are mixed feelings about the operation. Some are eager to return to their home of origin, others are not. For at least one man, tough economic times mean a new venture might be in order.
“When repatriation began [in 2008] I didn’t want to return because our life was stable here,” Abdoulaye Ndiaye, 36, told IRIN. A farmer with four children, he said: “These days it is tough to live off farming here. The authorities [in Mauritania] have promised us land there… I am ready to return to my native village.” He said he has appreciated the warm welcome by the Senegalese.
Photo: Aurélie Fontaine/IRIN
|Girls in a truck setting off for Mauritania from Senegalese villages, where Mauritanian families have lived for more than 20 years|
“I’m going back because I grew up in Mauritania and there is no place like one's country of origin,” vendor Amadou Ba told IRIN in the nearby village of Mery. “I trust it will go OK, because those who left before us have not returned to Senegal. My children don’t speak [Hassaniya] Arabic [language most widely spoken in Mauritania] but they’ll go to an Arabic school and they’ll integrate.”
Tamsir Ndiaye is a little more worried about the transition: “I’m going back because that’s where I live, it’s my country - even though I’d prefer that my children continue their schooling in Senegal. I fear the change will disrupt their learning.”
Fifty-year-old Binetou Konté is seeing off her children but will remain in Senegal: “I’m 50 years old, my husband is 70. I’m too old. But my seven children are going… When I first arrived in Senegal I was eager to return to Mauritania but now I’ve integrated and I don’t want to. Things are good for me here; I sell vegetables.”
On the eve of the trip, tents are set up for the families to sleep. But it’s pouring so the families take shelter in a nearby firefighters barracks.
Early in the morning they travel by truck to the town of Rosso-Senegal, to take a barge 800m across the River Senegal to Rosso-Mauritania on the other side of the border.
On their way in the truck Fatou Mbaye, holding her newborn and seventh child, told IRIN: “I am sad and happy at the same time. Sad to leave my village in Senegal but happy that I will return to the land from which my family was violently expelled. I don’t know what to expect back there. My husband has told me to go and I obeyed.”
As the trucks drive off the barge on the Mauritanian side, drummers play and Mauritanian officials stand waiting. The authorities do not allow journalists to disembark.
“We give the returnees papers that will serve as an official record of their status as citizens," said Souleymane Brehim, regional representative of Mauritania’s refugee reception and reinsertion agency. "We take a photo. Then we take them to the areas they have chosen to return to, to the areas from where they were expelled.”