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Senegalese colonial-era soldier savours homecoming

Yoro Diao, 95, a former soldier known as the "Senegalese Tirailleur", in white in the centre, surrounded by his extended family.   -  
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Elegantly clad in an immaculate white gown and matching cap, Yoro Diao, 95, was wreathed in smiles after officiating at the baptism of his brand-new great-grandson.

The ceremony was ripe with emotion for the old man, one of a dwindling band of Senegalese soldiers who fought in France's colonial-era wars.

In the twilight of his life, he was delighted to be back home and among his extended family after years spent in bureaucratic limbo in France.

"It's a huge joy. I never would have thought I would be here at this age close to all my grandchildren," Diao said, beaming.

"When you go home, when you have your children around you, your grandchildren, what else do people need?"

The former soldier served in Indochina and Algeria as one of the "tirailleurs", a legendary unit of infantrymen that the French army recruited in Senegal and trained for attacking the front lines.

Diao had longed to return to Senegal for good, but under French regulations he had to spend half the year in France to continue receiving his 950-euro ($1,020) monthly pension.

That requirement meant forking out a relative fortune in air fares -- and whatever was left would be eaten up by the higher costs of living in France.

But everything changed this year when the six-months rule was scrapped -- a move that coincided with a blockbuster movie about the tirailleurs starring Omar Sy, one of France's most popular stars.

Diao and nine other veterans have since returned home, without losing a centime of their coveted pension.

- Radiant -

Today, despite his great age, Diao exuded optimism and energy, frolicking from one room to another, voluble, radiant and apparently inexhaustible.

He arrived in Senegal two days before the birth of his great-grandson, Mohamed.

His new life in the quiet little rural town of Passy, where temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), is a world removed from the gritty Paris suburb of Bondy, where he lived in a tiny 15-square-metre (160-square-feet) flat in a hostel.

Since his return, he says he has spent his time -- apart from ceremonies and tributes -- going for walks in his rice fields and corn fields, and enjoying a spot of sunbathing.

Perched on a chair he talked at length about his life, his pride at joining one of Senegal's top regiments and his memories of serving as a nurse and stretcher-bearer in Indochina and Algeria in the 1950s -- as well as the strong camaraderie between the African contingent and their then French colonial masters.

But he regretted that he had had to keep on fighting after his service to be afforded the same rights as his French counterparts.

"They asked us for certificates which were impossible to obtain. And they knew it fully well," he said.

The veterans' victory is owed in large part to a decade-long effort by Aissata Seck, the granddaughter of a tirailleur and head of an NGO that nurtures their legacy.

She was shocked to discover their struggles and the "humiliating" experiences they had endured.

"Better late than never," said Samba Diao, Yoro's eldest son. His dream was to see the families of the tirailleurs likewise granted French nationality.

- Feast -

In the yard, the women, wrapped in brightly coloured wax-print dresses, were cutting vegetables and preparing rice, protected from the sun by an awning.

On the menu was cooked lamb, simmering in large pots heated over a wood-burning stove.

From time to time, a small cart trundled along the street adjoining the house, which the mayor has decided to name in Diao's honour.

Diao "is an example for us. We are very happy he is back," said Khalifa Ababacar Samb, 30, who had ventured over from a spot of shopping across the street.

Nestled among his loved ones, the elderly soldier was savouring the moment.

A group of griots -- musicians and storytellers renowned across West Africa -- twirled around him with abandon, singing his praises: a signal the feast could begin.

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