70 years ago, on May 8, 1945, the German armed forces capitulated in Europe. As VE day is celebrated let us not forget that more than a million African soldiers fought for colonial powers in World War II. Few of them understood why. Survivors received little compensation and veterans are calling for recognition of their rights.
From 1939 hundreds of thousands of West African soldiers were sent to the front in Europe. Countless men from the British colonies had to serve as bearers and in other non-combatant roles. In France, Germany and Italy, in India, Burma or on the Pacific islands, African soldiers died for their European colonial masters.
What they were to fight for, was not explained.
Baby Sy, a veteran from Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta). "People didn't understand when they heard talk of faschism. We were just told that the Germans had attacked us and considered us Africans to be apes. As soldiers we could prove that we were human beings. That was it. That was all the political explanation there was at the time."
African soldiers came into close contact with European soldiers and with the reality of life in Europe. That changed their awareness and later their political activity back home. During the war the African soldiers saw their so-called rulers from Europe lying in mud and filth, they saw them suffering and dying, says German journalist Karl Rössel who spent 10 years researching the topic in West Africa. "As a result, they realised that there are no differences between people," he said. This in turn led to many former soldiers joining independence movements in their home countries. Senegalese writer and filmmaker Usman Sember, himself a former colonial soldier, put it like this. "In war we saw the white men naked and we have not forgotten that picture."
Many veterans today are bitter. They received little recognition. "I get a monthly war pension of 5,000 Congo francs (4.8 euros, $5.4). That is not fitting for someone who represented Belgium's interests."
In 1946 Congolese soldier Albert Kuniuku returned home . For two years he had fought for the Allies against the Japanese. Asked if he is proud of his war service, he pauses. Tears roll down his cheeks. No, he says, he is not proud. The grief for his fallen comrades sits deep. Few of the 25,000 African soldiers who left with him for India came back.
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