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    Senegalese Refugees Speak Out Amid Increased Violence

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    Southern Senegal is experiencing some of the worst fighting in years, as violence between separatist rebels and army loyalists flares.  The fighting has left one small town in rural Senegal deserted, as farmers are forced to leave their crops to languish due to safety concerns.

    Nearly 200 protesters gathered outside government offices in Ziguinchor in southern Senegal this week.  Some held signs that read, "We Are Tired of the Fighting."

    Residents of Diabir flee fighting

    Most of the protesters were residents of Diabir, a small town 15 kilometers outside Ziguinchor.  Diabir is nearly deserted now, as its residents have fled after an increase in fighting between the Senegalese Army and members of the separatist rebel movement known as the Movement for the Democratic Forces of Casamance, or MFDC.

    A teacher from Diabir says he was forced to leave his home and stay with family in Ziguinchor.

    "My name is Thierno Diallo," he said. "I am a teacher in Diabir, in the outskirts of Ziguinchor.  In that area since the fighting between the MFDC troops and the Senegalese army began, people are leaving their villages for Ziguinchor.  A lot of people who are there are really now in bad conditions and they are really living in dire straits."

    The fighting is part of one the longest-running conflicts in Africa.  The conflict began in 1982, when MFDC separatists launched a rebellion against the Senegalese government.

    A peace accord was reached in 2004, but in the past month the area has seen some of the worst violence since 2002.  Last week, rebels shot and killed a Senegalese loyalist soldier.  In retaliation, a military jet belonging to the Senegalese army bombed the positions of the rebel movement.

    The fighting is hurting local farmers, who have been forced to leave their crops unattended amidst the violence said Diallo.

    "It is the rainy season," said Diallo. "And people should be in their farms trying to plow the lands, and now it will be very difficult for them to do their jobs in their fields."

    People angry with government

    At this week's rally, another resident of Diabir, Ousmane Diop, said he is angry with the government for not making their area safe against the rebel attacks.

    He said his area is usually without electricity, and at night bandits invade their homes.  He added people with guns constantly come in and steal their livestock.

    Another Diabir resident, Mama Mbouray Kande says she is traumatized by what is happening in her small town.

    There is fighting and there is darkness, says Kande.  At the demonstration this week, she said there are no longer army soldiers in the rural areas to protect her and her children.  She pleaded with the government to send military police to the area to protect them from the bandits and rebels.

    Because of safety concerns, Kande and her family fled their home.  She is now staying in a temporary shelter for refugees, set up inside a school in Ziguinchor.

    Diallo adds this housing situation only compounds the problem, because soon the government will be forced to move the refugees when school starts in Ziguinchor.

    "Most of them are now in Ziguinchor with relatives or they are in schools and the school will be opening very soon," he said. "And it will be a very difficult problem for the government to make the population leave the school and to prepare for the opening of the academic year."

    At the rally, a member of the armed forces who refused to be named insisted they were doing all they could to protect the population.

    This week, Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade promised to continue with peace efforts in the region.  But he added he thought peace had been achieved when his government signed the peace accords in 2004 with the MFDC.

    When the fighting began more than 25 years ago, families in the region were driven from their homes.  But in recent years, they had started to return to the land, where agriculture provides the main source of income.   

     

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