(GIN) – Fifty years after over a million Africans fought and thousands died for France during the ferocious battles against Nazis in World War II, French President Francois Hollande has given citizenship and full pensions to African survivors of that war and other conflicts.
In a ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris on April 18, the veterans – aged between 79 and 90 – received their new certificates of citizenship. Mr Hollande said France owed them “a debt of blood”.
“France is proud to welcome you, just as you were proud to carry its flag, the flag of freedom,” the President told a group of 28 surviving vets.
Human rights activists including the granddaughter of a Senegalese soldier, have long been calling for justice for the veterans. Aissatou Seck, who is herself deputy mayor of a Parisian suburb, has been a lead campaigner for African veterans’ rights.
Last year, she started a petition that gained tens of thousands of signatures in less than a week.
The veterans have long been struggling for recognition and equality in France. Until 2010, they received lower pensions than their French counterparts.
African troops, mostly from Senegal, fought in the deserts of North Africa, the jungles of Burma, over the skies of Germany and against Italian Fascist troops who, backed by thousands of Eritrean colonial forces, invaded Ethiopia.
During World War II, the Tirailleurs Senegalais (colonial infantry) comprised roughly 9 percent of the French army. Of the more than 200,000 black Africans recruited, approximately 25,000 were killed in battle.
At the war’s end, former prisoners of war were repatriated and interned in the Thiaroye holding camp near Dakar, Senegal. Denied back pay and pensions equal to those of the white French vets, some 1,300 Senegalese fighters mutinied only to be met by gunfire by French soldiers on Nov. 30, 1944. Between 30 and 75 Africans died in what became known as the Thiaroye massacre. A military tribunal sentenced some of the survivors to 10 years in prison.
One of those who fought for the French was Leopold Senghor, later President of Senegal. He spent two years as a Nazi prisoner of war and wrote of his experiences in his now-famous book of poetry “Hosties Noire”, Black Hosts, published in 1948.