Mauritanian refugees return home after long exodus
ROSSO, Mauritania, Jan 29, 2008 (AFP) - Almost two decades after ethnic conflict forced them off their farms and into exile, the first small batch of some 24,000 Mauritanians in Senegal crossed the river home Tuesday.
"In the name of the president of the republic, I would like to extend my warmest greetings to our compatriots," special envoy Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waqef told the first 101 to cross the Senegal River at a formal ceremony attended by senior officials.
"I wish to reassure you, the Mauritanian government has prepared welcome sites and will do everything it can to ensure your smooth resettlement," he added as locals cheered and the town flew banners in French and Arabic.
Waqef, the presidential general secretary, is tasked with organising the emotive return of many Negro-Mauritanians who fled across the broad river border during fighting which reached a head in 1989-91.
Thirteen of the 114 candidates for the first test day of ferry crossings failed to turn up, with mixed feelings among some of the 24,000 who had made new lives elsewhere, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates.
Another government official underlined the symbolism of the crossing by speaking to the group in Pular, or Peul, a language whose variations are spoken across many western and central African states.
Waqef also thanked "the people of Senegal for their efforts in ensuring the success" of the operation after a similarly moving departure ceremony in Rosso, Senegal.
If some stayed away "because of reticence," according to UNHCR West Africa spokesman Francis Kpatinde, others said it was "normal" that they should return home.
"We arrived in difficult times and today we're going home in peace," one of the refugees, Babacar Ba, told AFP.
"For 19 years, our Senegalese hosts looked after us well. We're very grateful. Now that peace has returned, it's normal we should go home."
Oumar Ba, a man in his 40s with 10 children, felt that resuming a life north of the river would not be easy.
"My children don't know Mauritania. I expect they'll have problems, but the Mauritanian government has undertaken to give us plots of land and classrooms for our children."
One group boarded a minibus and two lorries at Dagana, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the Senegalese capital Dakar, to be driven to Rosso.
The convoy was joined as it approached the little ferry port by more lorries, carrying passengers of all ages and their mixed jumble of baggage and small animals.
The return to their homeland, traditionally ruled by Moors of Arabic descent, finally became possible in March 2007.
After an army coup and a period of transitional rule, Mauritania got its first democratically-elected president since independence, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, an ex-government minister and political prisoner.
His government engaged in negotiations with Senegal and the UNHCR to bring home those refugees who wanted to return and signed a framework accord on November 12 last year in Mauritania's capital Nouakchott.
The authorities have opened a National Agency for the Reinsertion of Refugees, to oversee their resettlement, and World Bank chairman Robert Zoellick wound up a two-day visit to Nouakchott with a pledge to back it.
"The World Bank will support the reinsertion programmes for refugees," Zoellick told a press conference on Monday night, after congratulating the new authorities on democratic change and good governance.
Some black Mauritanians, long a repressed minority, remained unswayed back in Senegal.
"The conditions aren't right," Amath Mbodj, the 56-year-old chief of a Dagana settlement, told AFP.
"Some people say everything's fine, but we want guarantees. The Mauritanian government has said nothing clear about compensating cattle farmers and land-owners."
In Mauritania, the settlers will be given tents, blankets, three months' worth of staple foods, cooking equipment, mosquito nets and cement by the UNHCR to build new homes for themselves.
Copyright (c) 2008 Agence France-Presse
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 01/29/2008 10:28:24
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