Nine Senegalese war veterans who served in the French army have finally earned the right to live permanently in Senegal without losing their pension benefits.
This victory highlights the long struggle of thousands of African war veterans for both recognition and justice after their blood sacrifice in French wars.
Earlier this year, the French government issued a declaration allowing nine of its war veterans of Senegalese origin to permanently stay in their country while continuing to receive their pensions.
Until now, veterans born in France’s former African colonies who enlisted in the French army were obliged to live at least six months of the year in France to receive their minimum old age pension.
The nine veterans, aged 85 to 96, were compelled to leave their families in Senegal every six months to stay in tiny accommodation units in France if they wanted to continue receiving their 950 euro monthly pension.
Upon getting on a plane on April 28 to leave France, 87-year-old N’Dongo Dieng told the AFP news agency he was happy to finally return to Senegal for good.
“It was hard for our relatives to go back and forth, and because of our age too,” he told the French agency.
The former soldiers belonged to a military unit called the “Tirailleurs Sénégalais” (Senegalese Skirmishers), French army soldiers of African origin recruited by France in its colonies. They have popularly become known as Senegalese riflemen, though they didn’t exclusively come from Senegal but were recruited from across West and Central Africa.
Their unit was founded by a decree signed in 1857 by French Emperor Napoleon III and disbanded in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most African states achieved independence from France.
The African riflemen were initially intended to serve in the colonies, but World War I would be a turning point in their history.
Following huge setbacks suffered by the French army against German troops in 1914, the African riflemen were sent to fight in Europe to contain the Germans. According to the French Ministry of the Army, 200,000 combatants were shipped from Africa to the European front. 30,000 did not return.
“The Senegalese riflemen played an active role in the defence and reconquest of the national territory during the two world conflicts”, writes the French Ministry of the Armed Forces on its website.
Between 1914 and 1918, out of the 161,250 riflemen recruited, 134,000 took part in various operations, notably in Verdun and on the Somme (1916) and on the Aisne in 1917, while the others served overseas as sovereignty troops.
During the Second World War, the unit took part in the Battle of France in 1940, as well as in all the fighting carried out by the Free French, notably in Gabon (1940), at Bir-Hakeim (1942) and landing in Provence with the 1st army (1944), according to the French Ministry of Armies web site.
During the French wars to crush anti-colonial insurrections across their colonial empire, the Indochina war (1946-1954) and Algeria (1954-1962), Senegalese riflemen were also deployed in the theatre.
After the wars in Europe, the surviving African riflemen faced a new battle – this time for recognition and justice.
In 1944, the German army was defeated in France and was collapsing on all fronts. The Tirailleurs Sénégalais were sent back to Africa by the French army and temporarily regrouped in Thiaroye, a military barracks just a few kilometres from Dakar in Senegal, ahead of being dispatched to their respective countries.
The soldiers were happy to go home, but things changed when a white officer informed them that they wouldn’t receive the same pay as white soldiers – as promised – but only half of it.
Disappointment turned to anger, sparking a vehement protest to oppose the decision. The response from the colonial power was bloody and harsh. On the night of December 1 1944, the Thiaroye barracks were razed to the ground, and the protesters were erased from the map. Over 400 protesters died in what France termed a revolt.
The true nature of the injustice was buried by the French government and media, part of a campaign that has continued until recently. Hopes among the riflemen who had fought, eaten, slept and died alongside their white comrades that serving in the military was the first step towards emancipation from colonialism, were dashed.
“By paying the same blood you will have the same rights“, they were promised, said Senegalese historian Mamadou Koné interviewed by AFP. But the promise was never fulfilled, he added.
He further explained that many of the soldiers who fought in France during WWI were never paid veteran’s pensions and never received the citizenship status as promised.
Today, only a few dozen of the war veterans are still alive.
Until the early 2000s, their story was largely untold and absent from France’s history books.
They also faced stiff criticism at home from their compatriots, suffering a tarnished image for having served as soldiers for French imperialism, said historian Mamadou Koné.
But that was reversed in 2004, when then Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade instituted a day in their memory, a day which is celebrated every December 1.
On March 10, 2023, a square named “Place des Tirailleurs sénégalais” was inaugurated in Paris to pay tribute to the African soldiers who fought in the French army.
bird story agency