Family continues 76-year quest for truth and justice for West African soldiers who fought for France in WWII
By DANIELLE PAQUETTE | The Washington Post | Published: September 9, 2020
THIAROYE, Senegal — 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 to prove a long-buried truth to the world: Hundreds of West African soldiers who fought to liberate France in World War II 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 more than 300 — and that the war veterans actually remain in a mass grave.
“We have to dig them up,” Senghor said on a recent afternoon, fury lacing his voice. “We have to count them. We have to rebury them individually, like human beings, to truly honor them.”
Painful chapters of history burst open worldwide after George Floyd’s killing renewed outrage this summer around old symbols and systems of oppression. Statues were toppled in the U.S., Belgium, Britain and New Zealand. Companies, universities and public figures around the globe apologized for their own wrongdoings.
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 correct the record once and for all.
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 François 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’s ignoring their requests to access the archives. (Sall’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.)
Senghor’s father had been labeled 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.”
His next hearing in the French capital is scheduled for Sept. 11.
“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.”
People used to tell Senghor he looked just like his father: big, strong, yet gentle in the eyes — an imposing man who winked at babies.
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. They were known as the Sharpshooters, a name 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 labor 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.
His life ended less than a month later about 100 miles from his home.
As colonial officers prepared their reports for Paris, survivors — 34 of whom later were jailed on mutiny charges — spread word of a massacre at the military outpost in Thiaroye, telling people that 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 6 then, remembers his grandmother telling him through tears: The French killed your father.
He did not remember M’bap’s face, but he knew the man through family stories. Home disintegrated after his death.
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.
“I became an orphan,” he said at home in rural Diakhao, where his family has lived for generations. “What I remember from childhood is pain.”
Senghor recalls struggling to escape that pain. The millet fields would not get him far, he knew — M’bap had left no inheritance from his farming days — so he joined the force that 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.
“We didn’t have the same rights,” he said. “We were subjects.”
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 grew up.
His son, Seydina Alioune, 25, 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 webby organizing behind them.
In the U.S., it’s #BlackLivesMatter. In France, it’s #JusticeForAdama, named for a Malian French man who died in police custody. Here it could be #Thiaroye44.
“I don’t have much hope,” Senghor said.
“It’s on TV all the time,” his son said of the protests. “They are talking about the victims of racism.”
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 story would have been completely different if they were white,” said Mabon, who has spent eight years at the University of Southern Brittany while researching the killings. “M’bap and the others would have been exhumed a long time ago.”
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 — usually when he has business in Dakar — and to meet people who share his mission.
There was the late filmmaker whose movie about Thiaroye was censored in Senegal and was banned for years in France. The politicians named a holiday after Sharpshooters, though it is not observed widely.
More recently, there are graffiti artists who paint murals of the victims, teachers who informally add Thiaroye to their lesson plans, soldiers who guard a museum on the grounds that features old photos and uniforms.
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. There could be other mass graves, though — historians clash on that point.
They asked God to deliver justice. They talked about history.
They described their family ritual one August afternoon at home, where military certificates — Senghor’s — hung on the concrete walls. The aroma of his daughter-in-law’s beef and rice wafted through the compound.
The old man took out the last letter he wrote to the Senegalese and French presidents last year. It probably will be his final missive, he said. The unfinished job haunts him, but his energy is dwindling. He sorely needs eye surgery.
“I don’t think I will do it again,” he said.
He cannot attend his court date in Paris, either. He does not have the money. And even if he did, thanks to travel restrictions, he’d need special permission to enter France.
His son told him not to worry — he’ll keep fighting the Senghor family battle with his keyboard.
No matter what the court rules or the Senegalese government decides, M’bap’s great-grandchildren will know his story.
The Washington Post’s Khadidiatou Ba and Borso Tall contributed to this report.