Aid Officials, Refugees Say Mauritania is Expelling Citizens

RED sand swirls across the road parallel to the Senegal River, which forms the border between Mauritania and Senegal. Marked by a Red Cross flag, each town along its route - Thille-Boubacar, Fanaye-Dieri, Ndioum - has clusters of Mauritanian refugees sitting on straw mats. There are now some 15,000 Mauritanian citizens who have been forced to cross the river to the Senegalese side. ``This anarchy of expulsions must stop,'' says Cheikh Ba, administrator of the Ndioum arrondissement.

The flow of refugees began in early May after a land dispute between farmers and herders near the border town of Diawara flared into broader conflicts between Mauritanians and Senegalese. Some 100,000 Mauritanians in Senegal and 70,000 Senegalese in Mauritania were repatriated at that time, most of them in an international airlift.

Since then, however, a steady stream of black Mauritanian citizens has been crossing over from Mauritania. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has agreed to aid the Senegalese government in trying to repatriate, integrate, or resettle the expelled Mauritanians.

Mauritanian officials deny that their citizens are being forcefully expelled. They claim that people who are ``confused about their national identity'' are inventing these stories, despite the UNHCR tally of 15,000 legitimate Mauritanian refugees.

``It's easy to throw out an identity card and claim that it was destroyed,'' says Bilal Ould Werzeg, the charg'e d'affaires at the Mauritanian Embassy in Dakar. ``And ... it's difficult to tell the difference between a Mauritanian and a Senegalese living on the river.''

But relief workers strongly object to the Mauritanian government's version of events.

``There is a growing recognition by international organizations that a lot of the people being expelled are Mauritanian citizens,'' says a Western diplomat.

The reasons are complex, observers say, and include differences not only over race but also over nationality, caste, and economic level.

As in Sudan, further east across the continent, Mauritania is a country on the border between the Maghreb - Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria - and black Africa where a light-skinned minority dominates a black majority. The population of Mauritania is divided evenly into light-skinned Arab-Berbers, black former slaves who were Islamicized by their masters, and black Africans such as the Haalpulaar who retained their own cultural identity. Slavery was only abolished in Mauritania in 1980.

Most of the refugees are herders or farmers. They describe how their sheep and cows were confiscated, their identity papers destroyed, and their villages burned.

Keb'e Samba, an administrator at a Bogu'e high school, tells a story familiar to many of the refugees. ``The police called me in at eight in the morning on May 16 and started asking me what property I own and whether I have a stove and a refrigerator. They accompanied me home, rounded up my wife and four children, took the keys to the house, and then drove us to the river. They said that someone had informed on me, that I was really Senegalese.

``But I can give you the number of my Mauritanian identity card. By 11 o'clock that morning, I was a refugee in the Senegalese village of Demet,'' Mr. Samba concludes.

So far, the Senegalese villagers along the river have shown traditional hospitality, providing the refugees with food, clothing, and shelter. But as Mauritanians continue to arrive, the region's resources are reaching breaking point. Food shortages are feared since displaced Mauritanian farmers cannot plant their crops. The refugees themselves want nothing more than to return to their country, despite what they have been through.

The Senegalese government has been moving the refugees to larger inland towns where they will not be cut off from food and medical supplies once the rainy season starts.

The government is also concerned that refugees will try to cross back over to find family members and salvage belongings, provoking more violent conflicts. One such incident has already caused several deaths.

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