Mauritanian refugees stuck in Senegal for nearly two decades after fleeing ethnic clashes in their home country have begun returning to Mauritania under a U.N.-sponsored program. But many do not want to return. VOA's Nico Colombant has more from Dakar, with reporting by Ebrima Sillah on the border between the two countries.
There were goodbye ceremonies and welcoming ceremonies attended by officials on both sides of the Senegal river as more than 100 former refugees were ferried on motorized pirogues.
A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, Alphonse Munyaneza, explained international funding will help pay for resettlement.
"Each refugee returning back to Mauritania will receive a piece of land equivalent to 140 square meters for establishing a house. UNHCR and the government of Mauritania will provide construction material so that they can build a house," explained Munyaneza. "We will provide three months of food ration. We will provide a tent also."
Mauritanian refugee children broke out in song and laughter when officials arrived at their camps close to the border to get the process going.
There are more than 20,000 Mauritanian refugees in Senegal. Officials say the return program will extend over 18 months.
One of those happy to go is Haddy Sy. She says she left Mauritania after she was beaten up. This took place during a wave of ethnic violence that began in Arab Moor-dominated Mauritania in 1989 and escalated into border clashes, forcing tens of thousands of black, mostly ethnic Pular, Mauritanians into exile.
In the late 1990s, more than 30,000 refugees returned by their own means and some U.N. assistance.
Sy says she is leaving behind many good things in Senegal, including a peaceful setting, but that she is still happy to return to her home country.
Since taking office last year, the government of the elected, post-coup President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi has been making efforts to bring home the refugees, including several thousand more in Mali.
But many in Senegal do not want to return home, like Yaraah Sow, who lives in the Dagana refugee camp about 400 kilometers northwest of Dakar.
He says he is still very bitter about what happened nearly 20 years ago. He said his father, who was a civil servant, was attacked by a mob and died of internal bleeding at the gates of a hospital after doctors refused to treat him.
Sow accuses the military of seizing all his family's property. He says that two of his younger brothers died on the trip to Senegal. He says his children are now going to school and that they are better off in Senegal.
One of the refugee leaders, Mohamed Ali Sow, who left when he was 10, says he is studying at a university in Senegal to become a lawyer to defend the rights of chased out Mauritanians.
He says the return program has been rushed, because he says people who had their property seized, houses burned, and jobs taken away, should have guarantees these will be restored. He says until then, he does not think it is wise to go back.