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9 Senegalese war veterans return home after France change policy on pensions

Old Senegalese veterans who fought for France in the 20th century join their families in Senegal.
Soldiers who have spent years, sometimes decades, thousands of miles away from relatives to receive French military pensions were sent to the airport on Friday (April28
).

A few days before leaving home, AFP met Yoro Diao, a 95-year veteran. Three suitcases are piled up in Diao’s cramped studio apartment on the outskirts of Paris. After spending nearly 20 years in France, the veteran was finally able to return home to Senegal.

The decorated veteran said as he prepared for his flight on Wednesday (April 26). “Eat well and live well. Let’s take a look around the village. There is paradise there,” he added, a smile spreading across his thin face.

Hundreds of thousands of African soldiers fought for colonial France in two world wars and independence movements in Indochina and Algeria. But until this year, surviving veterans of the so-called “Senegalese infantry” had to lose their pensions if they did not live in France for six months.

In January, the French government lifted the conditions, saying they could continue to receive 950 euros ($1,000) per month of benefits even if they returned home permanently. It also pays for the airfare and relocation costs of veterans who wish to leave.

“Forgot”

In his tiny room in Bondy, a suburb of Paris, Diao pulled his fourth suitcase from under the bed.

There he painted pictures of his family in Senegal, men who fought in Algeria and Southeast Asia, and the day he won the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honor in 2017.

He continued, laughing, “President (François) Hollande was supposed to hand it to me, but he was busy, so he had a governor instead.” While preparing, Diao left notes all over the room. In the confusion of preparations, my passport in my jacket pocket was mistakenly sent to the container and I had to get a second urgent document.

According to the Senegalese Infantry Memory and History Association, 37 retired colonial soldiers like Diao still live in France. Its head, Aissata Seck, said the nine returning to Senegal on Friday was the culmination of a decade-long campaign for their rights.

“They were long neglected,” said Seck, 43, whose late grandfather was also a colonial soldier.

‘Given back their dignity’

When she first met Diao and his comrades 10 years ago, many lived alone in tiny hostel rooms sharing a communal bathroom, effectively stuck far from home yet unable to bring their families to France on their meagre income.

Their pensions were increased to adjust for inflation for the first time in almost five decades in 2006. “I was shocked that all these old men who had contributed to our freedom couldn’t even become French,” she said. After years of lobbying,

Hollande finally granted French citizenship to foreign war veterans in 2017. And in January, the government of President Emmanuel Macron lifted the six-month residency requirement on their pensions. Finally, “they got their dignity back,”

Seck said. The government’s decision comes after a film starring French actor Omar Sy, best known abroad for the Netflix series Lupin, helped shed light on the plight of the forgotten French colonial army.

In Fathers and Soldiers, Xi Jinping plays a Senegalese father who enlists in the French army to care for his son who is forced to wear a uniform during World War I. late friend Diao said he dedicated his youth to France. He served for three years in the Indochina War, fought in Vietnam from 1946 to 1954.

“It was terrible… I was the chief medical officer in charge of the stretcher carrying the wounded under enemy fire,” he said. “I’ve lost a lot of friends.” He was then sent to Algiers for two years during another fierce war of independence with France.

After all these sacrifices, having to spend 6 months each year in France was tough. He was in France when her 40-year-old wife died. “I lost her like that. Not being around her hurt,” he said quietly.

Before her death he flew to Senegal twice that year to nurse her. Because he broke the six-month rule, the French government fined him heavily. Since then, 66 euros ($72) have been deducted from his salary.

He still owes the French government about 13,000 euros ($14,000). Diao said the French government’s decision was made a long time ago. For some veterans who are now too weak to return home, it is too late. But for those who still can, “better late than never,” he said.

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