N'DIOUM, 5 August (IRIN) - Rougui Diallo can see her home on the northern bank of the Senegal River in Mauritania, but 16 years as a refugee and still fearful of the persecution that drove her out, she is no closer to returning.
Diallo is among about 65,000 mainly Afro-Mauritanians forced out of their country when long-standing ethnic tensions tipped into violence in April 1989.
Diallo, then four months pregnant, managed to escape to Senegal but her husband was killed in the spurt of anti-black violence in Mauritania that followed border clashes over land rights.
The Mauritanian government is said to have exploited the ensuing unrest to banish blacks from the country.
Mauritanian politics and society since independence have been dominated by the country's light-skinned Arab population, known as "beydanes," or "white men."
Rights groups say the government has oppressed blacks as part of an attempt to "Arabise" the country.
Ethnic backgrounds link refugees, locals
Some 20,000 Mauritanian refugees are still living on the Senegal side of the river, which separates the two countries.
Nearly 4,000 of the refugees live in two camps - N'dioum and Dodel. But most are spread in villages and small settlements across a 600-kilometre strip between Richard Toll and Bakel.
Dillah Doumaye, the UN refugee agency regional representative in Dakar, said there are strong links between local residents and the long-time refugees.
"They share linguistic and ethnic ties. The refugees live side-by-side with the local residents," he said.
The Mauritanian refugees are of the Pulaar, Soninke and Wolof ethnic groups, which are also present in Senegal.
Refugees seek compensation
Those refugees who have not ventured back to Mauritania try to eke a living out of whatever work they can find in Senegal.
Many say they would return home only if their government would pay them reparations.
After the spike in ethnic violence in 1989, human rights groups say, the Mauritanian government expelled tens of thousands of blacks, ripping people away from jobs, families, livelihoods and homes.
Fatou Diop, 70 years old, said she still remembers leaving pots and pans on the fire when policemen came and forced her and her family from their village of Keur Massar.
Her son, who worked for the Mauritanian Forest and Water Ministry, now sells dry fish in the market.
Doudou Ba, a nurse in a small refugee settlement in the commune of Diagana, would like to return home.
"The government should pay an indemnity, even if it is not a full reimbursement for our losses," he said. "And they must recognize our fundamental rights."
An official with the Mauritanian embassy in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, would not comment on the refugees' right to compensation, saying only that the refugees have every right to return to Mauritania.
"We are totally open to their return," embassy spokesperson told IRIN. Everyone who wished to return has done so - those staying [in Senegal] are doing so on their own will."
Meanwhile Ba does the best he can to keep up a nursery in Diagana. The facility no longer has backing from the UN refugee agency so Ba depends on patients paying 200 CFA francs (US $0.36) for consultations to keep the three-building compound functioning.
A number of women in the community have stillbirths, Ba said, because they cannot afford the 40,000 CFA francs (about $75) to give birth in the hospital.
Malaria represents the most significant health problem in the community, he said.
UNHCR assisted the refugees from 1989 until 1997, when all food and other relief was cut off, leaving the refugees to fend for themselves.
UNHCR's Doumaye said, "What donor is going to help refugees who have been here 20 years without any solution?"
The region is poor and struggles to feed itself in a good year. This year it is facing the fallout of 2004's devastating locust invasion and drought.
Many of the Mauritanians are living in urban areas where cultivating land is not an option.
Some women in the refugee communities still make a living on small trade they were able to set up thanks to UNHCR-sponsored loans.
Diallo gets by as assistant to the nurse in the N'Dioum camp. Her lanky 15-year-old daughter, Khar Diatta Bass, is the unborn child Diallo was carrying when she crossed the border, barefoot, in 1989.
The young girl has never been to the place of her parents' birth, across the river.
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