91-year-old former Senegalese rifleman will carry the Olympic torch in France

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BADIANA – At more than 90 years old, former Senegalese rifleman Oumar Dieme considers it a kind of miracle to be able to carry the Olympic torch at the opening of the Paris Games this summer.

In the shade of mango and milkweed trees, he recounts his time in the “Senegalese tirailleurs,” a corps of African infantrymen who fought for France during both world wars and several decolonization struggles.

Dieme’s traditional medal-adorned boubou speaks of his service in former French Indochina and later Algeria, while remembering those who never returned to their homeland.

“Many colleagues were left behind. Others returned mutilated (or) are no longer there,” he said, his blue cap adorned with the rank of sergeant.

Dieme explained that about 20 men from his village of Badiana, in the southern Casamance region, served in the Senegalese Tirailleurs corps until it was disbanded in the 1960s.

He added that he was one of the “lucky ones.”

“I am the only survivor. It was a miracle that they chose me,” he says, surrounded by family members and ruined buildings.

Dieme has been selected as one of the bearers of the Olympic torch as it passes through the Parisian department of Seine-Saint-Denis on the occasion of the opening of the Games at the end of July.

The organizers accepted the candidacy of the department where Dieme lived before his return to Senegal in 2023.

“The election of Oumar Dieme contributes to the important work of remembrance, because the Senegalese riflemen have been forgotten for too long in our collective memory,” St├ęphane Troussel, president of the Seine-Saint-Denis department, told AFP.

Dieme had never heard of the Olympic flame before, but he agreed anyway.

“Given my age, I would like to be accompanied by my son,” he said.

Independence

Dieme is one of thousands of soldiers born in the former French colonies in Africa who fought in the Senegalese Tirailleurs corps, created in 1857.

He enlisted on March 6, 1953, after leaving neighboring Gambia, where his father, an imam, had sent him to study the Koran.

Oumar Dieme's traditional medal-adorned boubou speaks of his service in former French Indochina and later Algeria.

Oumar Dieme’s traditional medal-adorned boubou speaks of his service in former French Indochina and later Algeria.

Recruiters gave Dieme a birth date of December 31, 1932, making him 20 at the time, but he believes he is at least two years older.

He volunteered to go to Indochina, where France, the U.S.-backed colonial ruler, was fighting the Chinese-backed Viet Minh independence movement.

He had seen “people coming back with medals and decorations, I liked that,” he said.

Dieme told how he saw 22 men from his company fall into an ambush, and how the siege of Dien Bien Phu had prevented him and his colleagues from reaching there before the decisive defeat of French Union troops in 1954.

After returning to his home country, Dieme left again in 1959, this time heading to the Algerian War.

It was here that he first learned of Senegal’s independence from France in 1960.

Dieme was repatriated and rejoined the Senegalese army, before retiring at the age of 36 and working as a security guard at the University of Dakar and as a messenger at a bank until 1988.

‘Beautiful symbol’

Dieme later settled in Bondy, northeast of Paris, where he and other former riflemen faced another battle, this time with the French state.

He eventually obtained French nationality and, in 2023, the government allowed the remaining tirailleurs to continue receiving the minimum pension without having to spend half a year in France.

Dieme later returned to Senegal, where he divides his time between his village and the capital, Dakar, where one of his two wives and the mother of many of his children lives.

“I am very happy to be with my family. (In France) I was confined in a 17 square meter room. I didn’t see anyone. In this town, everyone loves me,” he said with a wide smile.

Dieme’s opportunity to carry the Olympic torch is testament to the efforts of Aissata Seck, local councilor for Bondy and president of a group commemorating the tirailleurs.
“It is a beautiful symbol, even more so today, with the current extremely difficult situation and the trivialization of racism on social networks. It shows the richness and diversity of France,” he said.