38-year-old farmer Omar has been picking eggplant and hot-peppers since dawn in the hot sun. He says he makes enough to support his wife and six children, but that he’d hoped to do something different with his high school degree:
“What spoiled it for me is 1989,” he says, referring to the Mauritanian-Senegalese border conflict which sent tens of thousands of black Mauritanians like Omar fleeing into neighboring Senegal.
Photo: James Martone. Elders in the village of Fass in southern Mauritania say they will never forget the violent events of their country’s 1989-1991 conflict with neighboring Senegal.
Omar says that when he finally came back to Rosso in 1993, the area was destroyed and neither he nor his brothers could find jobs.
“We tried many different things, but we ended up in agriculture.”
In April 1989, a dispute between Senegal and Mauritania over grazing rights erupted into violence. In both nations, people thought to be linked to the other side were forced into exile. Violence in ethnically mixed Mauritania led about 70,000 black Mauritanians to flee to Senegal. When the conflict ended in 1991, many of those, like Omar, slowly trickled back.
Soulaymanou never left.
The black Mauritanian from the southern city of Rosso says he stayed in his hometown during the conflict 20 years ago, despite Arab lynch mobs and police attacks on blacks. He stopped going to high school, bought a gun and holed himself up with his family in their small house for three months.
“In the capital things were not as bad, but in Rosso the killing went on for three months. They would come to the house looking for Senegalese, and I had always my gun with me, and had decided that I would try always to negotiate my way out of being killed, but that if that didn’t work, I would kill them before they could kill us.”
Soulaymanou, who now works as a driver for an international organization in the capital Nouakchott, says that he doesn’t dwell on the past, but the events of 1989-1991 lurk always somewhere in the back of many black Mauritanians’ minds.
“Of course I can never forget those days, and I didn’t even lose any family members. So imagine those who lost a brother or sister or father or mother right in front of their eyes.”