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A little-known massacre in Senegal

It's been almost 70 years since French commanding officers turned their guns on their own soldiers - black Africans.
Last modified: 12 Nov 2013 06:34

It's been almost 70 years since French commanding officers turned their guns on their own soldiers. Those shooting were white and the victims were black.

The French admit that 35 died, but war veterans say 300 black African soldiers were killed in the evening of November 30, 1944.

Known as the Tirailleurs Senegalais, they were soldiers from Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad, Benin, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, and Togo.

All were former prisoners of war, freed from Nazi German camps and brought to a holding facility in Thiaroye, on the outskirts of the Senegalese capital Dakar.

The soldiers had been seeking equal pay with white soldiers and demanding their unpaid wages.

At the time, French commanders saw this as a mutiny, but for African war veterans this was a call for justice.

Let the truth be told

It took 62 years for France to finally offer them equal pensions. But veterans I spoke to say money is not enough.

They want the truth to be told.

Only last year did French President Francois Hollande officially recognise what he described as a bloody repression, offering the Senegalese photocopies of military archives detailing the event. French authorities consider this gesture their official apology.

Hollande admits African soldiers died in Thiaroye, but he makes no mention of who killed them and why.

Yet his address was well received by most African intellectuals.

It was a welcome change from his predecessor President Nicolas Sarkozy who, on an official visit to Dakar, said the "African man did not make its way into history", adding:"The problem with Africa is that it lives in the nostalgia of a paradise lost in childhood."

Blacks and Arabs outnumbered whites in the French Free Army.

They fought at the fronts but were consistently marginalised up until the end.

When the time came for victory parades, only whites were allowed.

Not taught in schools

There is no mention of the Thiaroye massacre in French history books, and it certainly isn't taught in schools.

In fact, I had never heard of it until I came to Senegal. Growing up in France, as a second-generation immigrant, the role of former French colonies in winning the world wars was barely mentioned in the curriculum.

Iba Der Thiam, a Senegalese historian, believes this is intentional.

"It is a page of history we tried to erase from the collective memory," he says.

"There is part-racism and colonial mentality in this where the African has no role to play in history."

Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese filmmaker, made a film about the Thiaroye massacre in 1988.

The film was banned in France for a decade, and was only made available on DVDs in 2005.

More surprisingly, Senegal censored this film too.

Strong ties with France

France continues to have strong military and political ties with its former colony.

Perhaps this explains why the film was censored and why the government has done little to support the veterans.

But a new generation of French and Senegalese leaders have started confronting this difficult past.

In an unprecedented move, the French authorities say they are going to organise an exhibition next year on the Thiaroye incident that will travel across former French West African colonies.

Until then, for those who want to remember, there is the military cemetery of Thiaroye.

The Senegalese army would not let us film it.

The cemetery is unkempt and no one comes to visit.

Beneath unmarked headstones are mass graves where the bodies of black African soldiers who fought to liberate France were dumped.

The caretaker believes the cemetery to be haunted. He says the soldiers' spirits won't rest in peace until their honour is restored.