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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 August, 2004, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
Letter: Senegal's secret soldiers
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton tells the tale of two old soldiers from Senegal in West Africa.

They are looking forward to a trip to France later this month to join in the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Paris from German occupation in August 1944. But their fond memories are tinged with bitterness and regret.

Let me tell you about two dignified old gentlemen I've met. Both are in their 80s and still hard at work - and both are World War II veterans, but they're not from Europe or America.

Among the crowds lining the streets for the 60th anniversary of Paris's liberation, you might be able to spot the distinguished-looking figure of Ousseynou Diop, who's 87, or the smiling Issa Cisse. He's 83.

Diop and Cisse are from Senegal in West Africa.

It's one of the former French colonies which sent tens of thousands of soldiers to help fight fascism and free France from the grip of Nazi Germany's occupation.

That was in the 1940s and they're very proud of the fact that they fought alongside their French comrades-in-arms.

Invited to celebrate

Now I don't know whether Ousseynou Diop and Issa Cisse will be in army uniform, in their red-topped kepis - you know, those distinctive peaked caps.

Or perhaps they'll be in grands boubous, the elegant flowing traditional gowns they were wearing when I met them in downtown Dakar.

Ousseynou Diop
It was like our own country. The Marseillaise was our national anthem. And we spoke French even better than some French people
Ousseynou Diop
We met at the Office National des Anciens Combattants du Senegal, a cream-coloured Art Deco building, the National Bureau of Senegalese war veterans.

Mr Diop greeted me in a chocolate-brown ankle-length boubou, peering out from behind large spectacles and a mountain of snow-white envelopes he was neatly addressing in long-loopy handwriting.

He was informing his fellow veterans about the French invitation to the celebrations.

And sitting in an adjacent office, Monsieur Cisse was dressed in white from top to toe - white cap, matching long, flowing white boubou and white slippers.

He's the chairman of the World War II veterans in Dakar.

Critical role

Now it's important to remember that troops from the French colonies, like Senegal, played a critical role in the liberation of France.

Some claim that as many has half the French troops who landed in southern France in August 1944 came from Africa.

Issa Cisse
I suppose you could call it youthful folly. But we said let's go and liberate France. Because if France was free, Africa was free
Issa Cisse
One journalist, who's been researching the period found a photograph in the National Archives in France, taken in Marseilles 60 years ago, which neatly underlines that point.

It shows German captives being herded into a prisoner-of-war camp and a column of French soldiers marching in the opposite direction.

What makes the photograph unusual is that while all the German prisoners are white, all the French soldiers are black.

Ousseynou Diop was 23 when he signed up as a volunteer in the French army in Senegal back in 1940.

He said the African soldiers who joined were fiercely patriotic.

They were all brought up thinking and learning about France.

"It was like our own country. The Marseillaise was our national anthem. And we spoke French even better than some French people," he said.


By his own admission Issa Cisse was rather na´ve when he joined the French army in 1942.

"We were so young," he told me. He said it was General Charles de Gaulle's entreaties, broadcast from exile for all patriots to free France, that really fired him.

"France was getting involved in the war," an excited Monsieur Cisse remembered.

"I suppose you could call it youthful folly. But we said let's go and liberate France. Because if France was free, Africa was free. That's why I joined the French army."

Issa Cisse was his mother's only child and she begged him not to go.

It's a question of appreciation, respect and especially dignity. I think we deserve better and they shouldn't forget that some of us gave our lives for France,
Ousseynou Diop

But he headed off to France, as did Ousseynou Diop.

Everyone was well aware of the dangers.

Grandfathers, fathers and other younger men had sailed away from Senegal before them, a generation earlier, to fight for France in World War I.

Many never came back.

They were members of the famed Tirailleurs Senegalais, regiments of Senegalese and other African soldiers which were first established in the mid-19th Century.

In those days the troops were mainly slaves.

The regiments expanded rapidly in the early years of the 20th Century.

Time of discovery

That was when the traditional ruling classes sent their sons as junior officers, because they thought a military career might make a good profession.

For Monsieur Diop, the early days in the French army in Senegal was a time of discovery.

Charles de Gaulle
De Gaulle was disappointed that nations like Senegal chose independence
He says the African recruits were treated just like the French soldiers.

They shared the same sleeping and mess quarters, eating the same food.

But he remembers a rude awakening once they docked at Marseille in France.

Gone was the equal treatment they had enjoyed with the French as fresh military recruits back home in Senegal.

Now, said Mr Diop, African soldiers were being treated as second-class citizens.

They were required to eat separately and at different times from the French.

The Africans resisted though and warned that they wouldn't fight at the front if this behaviour continued.

The French officers stopped the practice, but that didn't end the discrimination experienced by black soldiers.

There was more to come.

Crystallisation law

Fast forward 15 years or so. World War II is over and many of the African soldiers have returned home - including Ousseynou Diop and Issa Cisse.

Meanwhile in Paris, a top-level decision is being taken that will leave the Africans feeling they've been short-changed.

President Abdoulaye Wade
President Abdoulaye Wade championed the veterans' cause

Remember, this was the time that France was writing a new constitution for what would become the 5th Republic.

The country's overseas possessions, like Senegal, were offered the possibility of independence.

And most of them took it, to the disappointment of the French President, Charles de Gaulle.

And so in 1959, on the eve of independence, Paris passed legislation which has become notorious in Africa, especially among the war veterans. It's known as the "crystallisation" law.

The law froze the pensions of colonial soldiers who'd served with the French army.

And if the ex-servicemen died, their widows got nothing.

Over time, as the pensions of French veterans rose with inflation, a huge gap opened up between what the French and African veterans received.

And for the next 40 odd years, successive governments in Paris managed to suppress any attempts to repeal or reform this law.

Ousseynou Diop and Issa Cisse were at the forefront of the campaign to get France to change its mind.

Active campaigners

When they were younger, they tried petitions and protests.

As they grew older they turned to dialogue, negotiation and gentle persuasion, Ousseynou Diop told me smiling wryly.

It was a campaign that went right to the top in Senegal.

President Abdoulaye Wade, and his predecessors, all championed the veterans' cause.

President Wade is expected in Paris later this month with some of the Senegalese ex-servicemen.

Things finally began to change only three years ago.

Lawyers for one of the veterans appealed to France's highest administrative court, the Council of State, the Conseil d'Etat.

The court agreed that their client, Amadou Diop, a veteran with 22 years' service in the French army had been discriminated against.

The food was hellish, and sometimes the Germans didn't even give us food. But we had to pick potatoes for them!
Ousseynou Diop, on his time as a prisoner of the Germans

It was a landmark ruling, which meant that tens of thousands of colonial soldiers would finally be better compensated for defending France.

"It might be extremely expensive. But it is justice," said one of the lawyers triumphantly.

Lawyer's cause

Another lawyer, who represented the Africans, pointed out that the French state had made huge savings at the expense of old men, many of whom had lost limbs and much more on the battlefields of France.

"It has taken 40 years to put an end to this scandal," he said.

Sadly, this all happened too late for Amadou Diop. He died before the court made its final ruling.

But Ousseynou Diop and Issa Cisse are still not happy with the process France is now calling "decrystallisation".

We worked jolly hard. It was tough, it was tough
Ousseynou Diop
They say they faced the same dangers and privations as the French soldiers during World War II, so they should be getting the same pensions as the French.

And, although they say they're bitter, they're putting on a brave face and getting on with the business of helping other Senegalese veterans at their headquarters in Dakar.

In fact, initially, Ousseynou Diop told me he was so busy writing letters about this month's celebrations in Paris, that he didn't have time to talk to me.

But he relented. And that's when I learned that this charming old man, in his late 80s, had been an intelligence officer and that he'd spent most of the war as a prisoner of the Germans.

"The food was hellish," he remembered, "and sometimes the Germans didn't even give us food. But we had to pick potatoes for them!"

Missing home

He said they had to get used to the snow and the cold, as well as the hard labour. And they were up at three in the morning.

The wake-up call every morning was a round of machine-gun fire. "We worked jolly hard. It was tough, it was tough," he said.

He told me he'd even learnt a little German. "Please give me some bread. May I have some bread please? I haven't got any bread"

And he said it in German too, laughing. "Nix Brot. Geben Sie Brot."

But the hardest part was not having contact with his folks back home in Senegal.

Mr Diop smiled ruefully and said he felt he was being punished all over again - this time by the French government.

"It's a question of appreciation, respect and especially dignity. I think we deserve better and they shouldn't forget that some of us gave our lives for France," he said.

The French government points out that it can't possibly afford to pay out the millions of dollars it would need, were it to fully satisfy the African veterans' demands - and pay them the same pensions as the French ex-servicemen.

Paris says that, given the disparity between the economy in France and those in its former colonies, it would be unrealistic for all veterans to get the same.

Immense pride

Indeed France says the additional money the Senegalese veterans are now getting actually gives them more purchasing power in Senegal than their French counterparts in France.

Although the two old soldiers, Mr Cisse and Mr Diop, have misgivings about the French government's attitude, you can feel their immense pride in having helped to liberate France all those years ago.

They're planning to be in Paris on 25 August - Inshallah, as they say.

They're especially looking forward to meeting up with their old friends again, the French soldiers with whom they fought on the battlefield and lived in the POW camps.

Of course their comrades know where Senegal is, they even visit. But Mr Cisse wondered whether French schoolchildren these days could point to his country on a map.

Sixty years ago the civilians they liberated had no idea. "They asked us, the black soldiers, if we were Zulus, from South Africa," he remembers, laughing.

His response was to sing this morale-boosting song from those times: "Nous sommes venus de l'Afrique, pour liberer la France". We've come all the way from Africa, to free France.

So, spare a thought for veterans like Ousseynou Diop and Issa Cisse and look out for them among the Parisian crowds.

They represent a dying breed.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, journalist and broadcaster, is Ghanaian, and spent her early years in Ghana, Italy and Kenya. She has travelled all over Africa as a reporter.

Letter is a new BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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