By Sheriff Bojang Jnr.
"They invited me for interrogation about my nationality. The next day, I was arrested, they put me on a military plane and deported me to Senegal just because I am black", says a victim of Mauritania's repression against black citizens.
Racial tension and animosity continues in Mauritania after violence erupted recently on a university campus in the capital Nouakchott. Students of African descent and those of Arabic origin recently clashed on the use of Arabic and French as common languages.
The racial tension is a result of Prime Minister Moulaye Ould Mohammed Lagdaff governments intension to introduce compulsory Arabic as the only official language in the country. Black students interpret this as an insult to their identity. Students of Arabic descent, on the other hand, hailed the Prime Minister's declaration as a wake-up call to their supremacy over blacks.
Racial repression effectively started in Mauritania in 1989 following a border dispute with Senegal. The government of President Maaouiya Ould Sid' Ahmed Taya used the opportunity to expel its black citizens to Senegal, accusing them of being Senegalese. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds were killed or tortured, while those who remained in Mauritania were subjected to gross rights violations.
Aldiouma Sissoko is one of the victims of racial repression. He was born in Senegal in 1951 to Mauritanian parents, who migrated to Senegal in 1946 for work. Sissoko moved to Senegal as maritime expert in 1973 after his father encouraged him to contribute to the development of Mauritania.
From Mauritania Sissoko was sent to Canada, USA, Portugal, France and Morocco as a maritime officer. He was later appointed to be in charge of all the fishing operations in Mauritania.
On May 7 1989, Sissoko was interrogated for over seven hours before being arrested. "They asked for my national documents and when I handed them over they confiscated them because I was black and therefore not Mauritanian".
Within few minutes, the authorities put Sissoko on a military plane and deported him to Senegal. "It was the worst day of my life and I will never forget it. They sent me to Senegal with nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I was wise enough not to resist because they would have killed me as they did with others".
The memory will haunt him forever.
"I get very angry and bitter every time I think about it. They took away everything I worked so hard, my livelihood, everything. But the most important thing I lost is my nationality."
No to Senegalese citizenship
Despite being born in Senegal, Sissoko never took Senegalese citizenship. Since his deportation, he was approached several times by the Senegalese authorities to take citizenship and move on with life. But for him it is not as simple as that. “My father told me before he died that I must remain a Mauritanian and nothing else. It is a struggle for justice and dignity. It's a mental obligation to me and my father. I will die struggling to reclaim my Mauritanian citizenship and to go home to Mauritania.”
Sissoko is jobless and often struggles to provide food for his family.
“I shed tears sometimes when my children ask me why we are facing such hardships. But I always tell them the truth. When they grow up they can choose what nationality they want but for now, they must remain Mauritanians and nothing else.'
Mauritanians in Senegal look up to Sissoko as their hero. For Madame Ba, Sissoko gives hope and strength to all of us battling for justice. “He is well educated and he has a choice of taking Senegalese citizenship and acquiring a lucrative job in Senegal but he chose to stay in the struggle no matter what”.
As a jobless man in the streets of Dakar, Sissoko's day-to-day activities include helping other Mauritanian refugees with various paper works, solving disputes between them and taking up their cases at especially the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on their behalf.
"Sissoko represents all the Mauritanian refugees here. I don't know what life would have been for us without him. He is our hero", another Mauritanian refugee says.