National Post (Latest Edition)
A SEARCH FOR JUSTICE
FAMILY MAKES DECADES-LONG PUSH FOR TRUTH BEHIND DEATH OF WEST AF RICAN SOLDIERS IN 1944
WE HAVE TO DIG THEM UP. WE HAVE TO COUNT THEM. WE HAVE TO REBURY THEM INDIVIDUALLY LIKE HUMAN BEINGS. TO TRULY HONOUR THEM. — BIRAM SENGHOR, 82, AMONG THE LAST LIVING SONS OF THE SLAUGHTERED WEST AFRICAN SOLDIERS
Before the old man dies, he yearns to see his father’s bones. It’s the only way to clear his family’s name, he said, and prove a long- buried truth to the world: Hundreds of West African soldiers who fought to liberate France in the Second World War were killed upon their return one morning at the order of French commanders.
“These white men threw away Black men like they were nothing,” he said.
Biram Senghor, 82, is among the last living sons of the victims, who belonged to a force known as the Senegalese Sharpshooters, though many hailed from other former French colonies: Burkina Faso, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Mali.
Now he hopes the global reckoning over racial atrocities past and present will help lift their legacy out of obscurity. France has maintained that 70 Sharpshooters were laid to rest at a military cemetery near the Senegalese capital, but historians from both continents say the true number is likely higher than 300 — and that the war veterans actually remain in a mass grave.
“We have to dig them up,” Senghor said recently, fury lacing his voice. “We have to count them. We have to rebury them individually like human beings. To truly honour them.”
Painful chapters of history burst open worldwide after George Floyd’s killing renewed outrage this summer around old symbols and systems of oppression.
The relationship between Senegal and France, dating back more than three centuries, is fertile ground for such moral excavation, activists here say. The West African territory was the European power’s regional headquarters until Senegal’s independence in 1960, and leaders on both sides have hesitated to probe the collective memory too deeply.
Senghor, a colonial- era veteran himself, has made the plea for exhumation to French and Senegalese presidents since the 1970s, urging them to finally correct the record.
Today, no one disputes that the story began with a group of West African soldiers, freshly returned from deployment, asking for their wages.
They had gone four
years without the promised amount and confronted colonial authorities led by Charles de Gaulle in a Senegalese garrison town called Thiaroye, which was supposed to be the last stop before home.
That’s where things get murky.
A general reported a violent uprising in Thiaroye on Dec. 1, 1944, writing at the time that killing their comrades was a “necessary painful stab in a dangerous abscess.”
Senegalese researchers say that was a lie: The West Africans no longer had weapons. They’d protested and cornered a general but released him unharmed. The French responded with machine guns.
“As soon as victory came, they were erased,” said Mor Ndao, chairman of the Senegalese commission for military history. “Instead of money and bread, they got bullets.”
French President Emmanuel Macron’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Seven decades later, France acknowledged that something went horrifically wrong when then- president Francois Hollande handed over the European nation’s archives on Thiaroye to Senegalese President Macky Sall.
“I wanted to right an injustice and salute the memory of the men who wore
the French uniform,” Hollande said on a 2014 visit to the military cemetery, “and on whom the French had turned their rifles, because that is what happened.”
Yet he cited the lower death toll, irking Senghor and the Senegalese activists who wanted France to be more explicit — to call it a massacre, not a mutiny — and to answer for the Sharpshooters who were missing.
Historians are still unable to trace about 350 men known to have been at the camp, Ndao and other Senegalese officials say, and consider them probable victims. The hunt for facts is blocked, researchers say, by the Senegalese government ignoring their requests to access the archives. ( Sall’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.)
Senghor’s father had been labelled a “deserter.”
French historian Armelle Mabon helped him uncover that record at a military archive office in Caen, France. It bolstered his appeal to a Paris court for a correction: “died for France.”
“My father and the Sharpshooters — they did not run away,” Senghor said. “They did not abandon their families. They are here in a mass grave.”
M’bap Senghor was a millet farmer until the order came in 1939: He’d be fighting Nazis in France.
He did not know how long. He did not have a choice. France would rule Senegal for another two decades, and survival meant following colonial mandates, even if that meant leaving your wife and toddler to fight for another country’s sovereignty.
During the conflict , France drafted about 200,000 West Africans into battle, Senegalese historians say. Their Sharpshooters name was born of mockery around their lack of formal training.
At least 14,000 died. Others — including M’bap — fell into the hands of German soldiers, who sent Black prisoners to labour camps in northeastern France, saying they wanted to rid their soil of “racial contamination.”
He languished there until freedom came in 1944.
M’bap boarded a British ship to Senegal that November with nearly 1,700 other Sharpshooters, according to maritime logs obtained by Mabon, the French historian.
M’bap’s life ended less than a month later about 160 kilometres from his home.
As colonial officers prepared their reports for Paris, survivors — 34 of whom were later jailed on mutiny charges — spread word of a massacre at the military outpost in Thiaroye, telling people French soldiers had opened fire on unarmed West Africans just after the
9:30 a.m. roll call.
The violence did not seem like a hasty response to a mortal threat, a French officer’s chef later told researchers — the colonial leader’s wife had warned the Senegalese cook to hide that morning in a cellar.
Senghor, who was six years old then, remembers his grandmother telling him through tears: The French killed your father.
Senghor’s mother remarried and sent him to live with an uncle, whose wife resented having to look after another child. And because Senghor was the son of a “deserter,” the state offered him no financial help.
M’bap had left no inheritance from his farming days — so Senghor joined the force that had upended his life: the colonial-era military.
It was the only path in 1958 to the police department, which offered some of the best salaries in town, so he endured a culture of segregation — a kitchen for Blacks, and a kitchen for whites.
M’bap was not far from his mind when Senegal became independent in 1960.
Senghor quietly searched for answers as he became a police officer, got married and built his children a home in the countryside — just down the road from where his father had grown up.
His 25- year- old son, Seydina Alioune, a philosophy student at Senegal’s biggest university, is staying there now to wait out the coronavirus pandemic.
Senghor’s eyesight is fading, so the younger man narrates the news on social media: the protest movements challenging power structures — in the capital, Dakar, too — and the social media organizing behind them.
Over the years, Senghor pressed authorities to remove M’bap’s shameful label — they did — and add “died for France” to his file. They did not, citing a lack of death certificate and no proof that M’bap did not participate in a mutiny.
Senghor has demanded the money his father should have received in 1944. (Still nothing.) And he found a community of veterans and researchers pushing, without success, for exhumation.
Senegal has the power to do it, but activists say the government does not want to upset relations with France. A lack of funding also could impede progress, especially during a pandemic. (Sall’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)
“We must identify these bodies and hand them over to their relatives if they are still alive,” said Babacar Gaye, the former chief of staff of the Senegalese army.
The military cemetery in Thiaroye rests off a busy road.
One of its concrete walls collapsed, and the caretaker is looking for a contractor who can fix it cheaply. Weeds poke through the graves. The white tombstones are all blank.
Senghor tries to make the three-hour trek at least once per year and meet people who share his mission.
This year, the pandemic stopped Senghor from visiting.
He last came with his son in October to pray at the spot where M’bap is thought to be buried under a baobab tree.
Back home, the old man has taken out the last letter he wrote to the Senegalese and French presidents last year. It probably will be his final one, he said. The unfinished job haunts him, but his energy is dwindling. He sorely needs eye surgery.
But his son will keep fighting the Senghor family battle with his keyboard — to ensure M’bap’s great- grandchildren will know his story.