Nine very old riflemen, who fought for France in Indochina and Algeria, arrived in Senegal on Friday to end their lives peacefully, after a long battle with the French administration to have their "sacrifices" recognised.
When the first of them walked through the doors of the plane at Blaise Diagne airport, installed in his wheelchair, white beard, dressed in a traditional brown boubou, families and veterans have launched the first applause.
It was time for a reunion. Some smiled, others cried, all marked by the emotion of returning to their country of origin in the twilight of their lives.
This moment was made possible thanks to a derogatory measure decided by the French government, which allows them to live permanently in Senegal without losing their minimum old-age allowance of 950 euros per month.
"I am very happy to be back with my family, my brothers, my children," said 91-year-old Oumar Diémé on his arrival.
A few minutes before, his brother Sidi introduced him to AFP as "the patriarch", "the baobab of the family", who was sorely missed. His relatives prepared a mafé, his favourite dish, for his return.
"The measure may have come a little late, but today the prevailing feeling is one of joy," he said, saying his only regret is that his eldest child "will not be able to benefit from the same medical care as in France.
The nine soldiers were then received at the presidential palace by President Macky Sall, who decorated them.
- Injustice repaired" -
"Today we celebrate an injustice repaired. You can finally live at home, with your families and receive your full pensions," said President Sall.
"This ceremony is an exercise in memory in recognition of the sacrifices. It is also a reminder of the long series of injustices against the infantrymen who have been in all the battles," he added.
"All the Senegalese infantrymen have given their full satisfaction to France. It is a debt that France has paid us," reacted Yoro Diao, their spokesman.
All elegant in impeccable suits or traditional tunics, wearing their military medals with poise, these Senegalese riflemen had left at dawn their 15-square-metre studios in a hostel in Bondy, near Paris, where they had lived for years.
"Long live our fathers!" and "Long live France and Senegal!" were the words heard during the moving moments of group photos and exchanges with the French Secretary of State for Veterans and Remembrance, Patricia Mirallès, before their departure. "We will miss you! but the family is waiting for you there...", the Secretary of State told them, moved.
"I am very happy to return to Senegal and to continue to benefit from the rights I had in France; for the past 25 or 20 years, it was hard for our relatives to commute, and for our age too.
N'Dongo Dieng, 87, wearing his military medals on a mustard tunic, told AFP.
This comes "late", because "many comrades died before benefiting from this measure...", lamented the veteran.
Exceptional aid also finances their removal, their return flight and their resettlement.
- Relief" -
"I am extremely moved," Aïssata Seck, president of the Association for the Memory and History of Senegalese Tirailleurs, told AFP before taking the plane.
The granddaughter of a rifleman, she was the linchpin who for 10 years worked for their recognition, until the decision of French President Emmanuel Macron in early 2023 to announce this derogatory measure for their allowance.
"The fact that they can finally return home is a real relief and the culmination of a very long struggle" for them to have "a dignified end to their lives", according to Ms Seck, who believes that the French state "did what was necessary".
For Claire Miot, a lecturer in history at the Institute of Political Studies in Aix-en-Provence (France), "it is a recognition of their sacrifices in the service of France that is extremely late because these are men who are 90 years old.
The French "Senegalese Riflemen" corps, created under the Second Empire (1852-1870) and disbanded in the 1960s, brought together soldiers from the former African colonies. The term came to designate all African soldiers who fought under the French flag.
After Friday's departures, there are still 28 Tirailleurs in France - all of Senegalese origin -, many of whom are likely to return permanently soon.
Yoro Diao, 95, who volunteered for the French army as part of his family's tradition, is wearing the Legion of Honour and wants to "rest" in Kaolack, in central Senegal.
"It's a very important day for us, and memorable," he told AFP before boarding the plane. "Our children and grandchildren will always remember... that grandpa came back from France that day very happy.