Paris 2024 Olympic Games: Oumar Diémé, former Senegalese rifleman and torch bearer

In his village in southern Senegal, former rifleman Oumar Diémé sees as a miracle the prospect of carrying the Olympic flame to France at the age of 90, he the “survivor” of the French wars of decolonization.

Elegant in his olive green boubou, medals and decorations on his chest, Oumar Diémé thinks of those who wore the French uniform during the two World Wars or, like him, in Indochina and Algeria, and who are not not income. “Many colleagues stayed there. Others came back mutilated or are no longer,” he muses, a slim figure topped with a blue cap to which his rank of sergeant is pinned.

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About twenty men from Badiana, his village in Casamance, served, with varying degrees of fortune, in the corps of Senegalese riflemen until its dissolution in the 1960s, he said in French, sitting on a plastic chair, surrounded of his people in the shade of cheesemakers and mango trees whose branches intertwine above the decaying mud houses. He “had the baraka”, luck. “I am the only survivor. The choice of me is a miracle,” he says.

Returned to Senegal in 2023

Oumar Diémé will be one of the torch bearers when it crosses the Seine-Saint-Denis at the end of July, shortly before the opening ceremony of the Games scheduled for July 26. This department located to the north-east of Paris, he lived there, in a hearth in Bondy, before returning to Senegal in 2023. And the organizers of the torch relay accepted the proposal to integrate it from the department.

To read : Former rifleman Oumar Diémé will carry the Olympic flame in Seine-Saint-Denis

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The president of the department of Seine-Saint-Denis, Stéphane Troussel, speaks of an “indispensable work of memory” because, he says “the Senegalese riflemen have been forgotten in our collective memory for too long”. Oumar Diémé had never heard of the flame. He said yes anyway, but “given my age, I would like to be accompanied by my son.”

Viet Minh, Algeria…

Oumar Diémé is one of thousands of Africans to have fought in the corps of Senegalese riflemen, created in 1857. They actually came from French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, and not just from Senegal. He enlisted on March 6, 1953 after fleeing neighboring Gambia where his father had sent him to study the Koran because he wanted him to be an imam, like him. Due to lack of civil status, the recruiters have given 20 years. He thinks he has at least one more.

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The same year, he volunteered for Indochina, where U.S.-backed colonial France was fighting the Chinese-backed pro-independence Viet Minh. He had seen “people come back with medals and decorations, I liked that”. There, he saw 22 men from his company fall into an ambush, he says. He also remembers how the encirclement of Diên Bien Phu prevented him from arriving there with his comrades before the decisive defeat of the French Union troops in 1954.

To read : Tirailleurs: a film, a minimum of old age and a statue?

Returning to Senegal, he left in 1959 for the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962). It was there that he learned of Senegal’s independence in 1960. Repatriated, he was transferred to the Senegalese army and retired at age 36. He was a guard at the University of Dakar, then a courier in a bank there capital until 1988. After which, he settled in France.

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“In France, I was locked in a 17 m room2″

Oumar Diémé and other former riflemen living in Bondy had to give battle again, this time to the French state. He eventually obtained French nationality. In 2023, the French government granted the last riflemen the right to continue to receive the minimum old age of 950 euros per month without having to spend half of the year in France. The French authorities then put the number of riflemen living in France at 37.

Naming ceremony in Marseille, on November 10, 2022, of the Ahmed Litim school, Algerian rifleman, liberator of Marseille, victim of a German shell on August 25, 1944. © Nicolas VALLAURI/MAXPPP.

To read : France-Algeria: an Algerian rifleman dethrones General Bugeaud at the front of a school

He and others returned. Since then, he has alternated between his native village, where he completed the construction of a large permanent house, and the capital, where one of his two wives and mother of numerous children lives. “I am very happy to be among my family. In France, I was locked in a 17 m room2. I didn’t see anyone. In this village, everyone loves me,” he says, his face beaming.

The choice of Diémé to carry the flame recognizes the efforts of Aïssata Seck, elected official from Bondy and president of an association for the memory of riflemen. “It’s a beautiful symbol, even more so today with extremely difficult current events and the trivialization of racism on social networks, it allows us to show the richness and diversity of France “, she says.

(with AFP)

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