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Mauritanian Refugees Welcome Invitation to Return Cautiously


The West African country Mauritania is emerging from decades of dictatorship. The newly-elected President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi is facing the problem of how to bring home tens of thousands of Mauritanians who fled ethnic violence under the previous dictator. Refugees say they have long wanted to return, but question their safety in a country still divided by color and class. Phuong Tran brings us this report from Nouakchott, Mauritania.

Hundreds of black Mauritanians were killed and tens of thousands lost everything in the 1989 ethnic purge by the Arab-dominated government of Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya.

Through the years, many of the more than 70,000 who fled have returned to Mauritania. They came on their own, with no government protection from attacks or help restarting their lives.

President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi campaigned on bringing together racially-divided Mauritania. He recently named a committee of elected officials and civil society groups to organize a U.N.-supervised return of the refugees, scheduled to begin later this year.

The committee visited refugees in Senegal earlier this month to hear their views on returning.

Amadou Samba Ba, the chief of Dodel, one of the largest Mauritanian refugee camps in Senegal, says for 18 years, his community has requested this formal visit and a supervised safe return.

But he says there are also other demands. Ba says the government needs to restore jobs, land. and cattle taken away in the late 1980's, as well as lost wages.

Ba says there are not enough schools or health clinics to serve the thousands who will come home.

The camp chief says the refugees also want officials who took part in the purges charged for murders and other human rights abuses. An estimated 500 died.

The refugees have asked the government to set up a truth and reconciliation committee, similar to those created after conflicts in South Africa and Liberia.

President Abdallahi has not said which demands he will meet. He has signed an agreement with the U.N. refugee agency and Senegal to help the refugees return safely and grant them citizenship.

The president says his goal is to create conditions for refugees to safely return with dignity.

But U.S- based Islamic law professor Bernard Freamon says the government alone cannot fight racial discrimination. He says Mauritanians listen to their religious leaders.

Freamon says some leaders wrongly interpret the Koran to justify the continued political and economic domination of white Moors over Blacks.

"People use the old classical law as a proxy for maintaining what are essentially either tribal or feudal, or sometimes class or caste based relationships," he adds.

The law professor says government efforts to work with religious leaders are hard.

"Classical Islamic law requires the person qualified to give opinions in Islamic law be independent of the ruler," said Freamon. "Some scholars do not want to be tagged with the negative label of being a mouthpiece for any particular government."

Freamon says it will take time, but without the support of Islamic leaders, it will be hard for the president to convince the population to change long-held views on color, caste, and class.

U.N. refugee agency officials expect more than half of the refugees to return once the $1.6 million return program concludes at the end of next year.

Officials estimate almost 30,000 refugees live in Senegal and Mali.

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