During the final campaign week in Mauritania's second round of the presidential election, two white Arab candidates are trying to court the sizable black vote in a country long divided by color and ethnicity. Blacks expelled almost two decades ago are watching the new candidates, looking for signs they may safely return. Phuong Tran brings us this report from a Mauritanian refugee camp in Senegal, 20-kilometers from the border.
Camps like this one in Dodel hold thousands of Mauritanians along the Senegal-Mauritania border.
Dotting the 600 kilometer desert landscape are hundreds of communities of straw thatched huts, sparse vegetation and thousands of blacks pushed out of Mauritania in the early 1990's, when ethnic and regional tensions flared.
These men closely follow the second round of voting between candidates Sidi Ould Sheik Abdellahi and Ahmed Ould Daddah.
But none of these men who heatedly argue politics over mint tea are able to vote. They say when they fled, officials took away their papers and now they have no way of proving their Mauritanian citizenship.
This camp's chief Amadou Samba Ba, a former high-ranking army official, says he wants to go back if the elected president delivers on promises to end slavery and a safe return for refugees, but that otherwise he will accept repatriation to another country. He says he wants to show his seven children life outside the camp.
Human-rights lobbyists and blacks say racism is widespread in Mauritania, where slavery is still openly practiced.
Spokesman for the Association of Mauritanian Refugees in Senegal, Moustapha Toure, says most Mauritanian refugees want to return home, but only if officials acknowledge what he says are human-rights abuses against blacks. He adds his community is ready to negotiate its return.
"We are open. We will probably accept to discuss with Mauritanian officials," said Toure. "But we have our conditions. It will be very difficult for us, but I think it is right for Mauritanians to come back to their home."
The group's conditions include the organization of a national commission of truth and reconciliation and an internationally overseen repatriation.
Displaced Mauritanians also want a guarantee of proper citizenship papers and help with employment and housing.
A U.S. based refugee advocacy organization, Refugees International, says expelled Mauritanians are essentially stateless. Most do not have refugee status because of the expensive and complicated process in Senegal, where most live.
Mauritania will not accept them if they cannot show Mauritanian papers.
There is not a lot of work for this kora player, like others in Mauritanian border camps.
Some find occasional work in livestock or agriculture, but mostly they simply wait.
On March 25, voters in Mauritania will elect one of the two presidential candidates, the first time a president has not been elected in the first round.
It is also to be the first democratic change in government in a country that has been rocked by repeated coups and coup attempts.