Dia’s family devastated by his death
DIORBIVOL, Senegal – “Baba?” cries 3-year-old Amadou,
clinging to his visiting uncle Abdourahmane’s right leg, dark
eyes shining with hope.
Little Amadou is bewildered by the soft sobbing among adults
he hears in this hot windy village at the edge of Africa’s
Sahara Desert. He’s never met his quiet, coffee-colored father.
They were supposed to meet this year. Yet now when Amadou asks
about Daddy, the sobbing gets louder.
Nobody can bear to tell Amadou the truth: His father –
38-year-old Oumar Dia – is dead. A gas station clerk shot him
one November night as he waited at a bus stop after work, half a
world away in Denver, Colo.
Now in tiny Diorbivol, the full meaning of Dia’s death is
starting to sink in: A bit of wanton barbarism in Denver
threatens the very survival of his village. Like villagers
across Africa, and much of the developing world, Dia’s people
depend increasingly on their migrant sons.
They sent Dia into the growing wave of tens of millions of
sons and daughters migrating from poorer nations to richer ones
to make better lives for themselves and their families back
home. And Dia became one of the newest of such immigrants in the
United States, where just about everybody has an ancestor who
came from someplace else – Ireland, Italy, Germany, Mexico. It
is a phenomenon that has defined our country.
Here in Africa, the situation resembles that of American farm
boys leaving the heartland for city lights. Young Africans go
far to get money at gateways to the global economy. They scrub,
lift, sell – any kind of job – in Dia’s case cleaning at a Hyatt
hotel. They send home money and sustain the places of their
heart – the familial villages where two-thirds of Africa’s 700
million people live.
The Denver Post decided to go to Dia’s village to investigate
the impact of his death on the people he was supporting. A month
after the murder, you can already measure the difference here in
Diorbivol. The rice supply is running out. The water pump that
used to irrigate rice paddies doesn’t work, and nobody’s in a
position to diagnose the problem, let alone pay for fuel. Eyes
and noses of the sick are left to run. Children no longer can
aspire to attend high school. Dia’s family must forget about a
solar panel that would let them turn on a light at night.
This wasn’t the first tragedy the family endured. In 1989,
they were driven from their village in Mauritania by the Moors
in a massive land grab. The conflict has racial overtones
because the lighter-skinned Moors still enslave dark-skinned
Mauritanians without land.
Now in this village where the Dia family resettled along the
Senegal River, Dia’s grieving relatives slump on straw mats
beneath the acacia tree that grows in their compound of cement
houses and adobe huts. A pale blue-and-yellow mosque towers over
the survivors: his widow, Mariam, veiled in black; his frail
father, Barka, tears seeping through slits of his nearly blind
eyes; his mother, Aissata, lines on her face etching in what
feels like too much of an endless struggle.
“Since Oumar died, we cannot live normally,” says
80-year-old Barka, clutching empty bottles of the glaucoma
medicine he needs to save him from blindness. “All what Oumar
had done in the United States, we saw it here. Everything we
needed to lead a good life came from Dia – health, shelter,
Now the family must decide what to do. Justice is one thing.
But they’re more concerned about simply managing to live.
They’ll send out other sons to try to take Dia’s place. And
“Alhamdoulilahi (Thanks be to God),” they say, bowing
repeatedly in respect at the rising and setting of the sun and
the moon and the stars.
The wooden casket sitting behind the mosque here has a splintered
hole in one end. This is the casket that carried Dia’s body
home, accompanied by Mohamadou Cisse, one of Dia’s friends in
Denver. The villagers received it, pulled out the body, and
buried Dia lovingly in the cemetery overlooking the Senegal
River. Dia’s freshly turned grave isn’t marked. The villagers
can’t afford that. But they welcomed Dia back, eulogizing him as
a hero slain while doing his duty for the village.
The villagers understand all too well: Dia bridged a gap that
is wider than the oceans.
Until he was 30, he lived the life of a subsistence farmer.
He was born and grew up in Rouji Aoudi, Mauritania, a squat
adobe village half a day’s hike from here on the northern side
of the Senegal River. He liked to wrestle, sometimes tussling
with other boys to the beat of a drum in parched, dusty yards.
At age 7, he began school, hiking 3 miles and crossing the
river to Senegal, then climbing up through eroding gullies to a
village called Poste. A teacher in a one-room concrete building
taught French, bits of geography and history. At 12, his
education was finished, because his parents had no money to send
him away for high school. So he did what boys do across this
Pulaar-speaking region: herded goats, fished from pirogues in
the murky green river, tended green shoots of maize and millet,
savored the strong sweet tea that women prepare after dusk.
But then, one day in May 1989, everything changed.
Khaki-clad Mauritanian soldiers approached his village. The
fertile floodplain around Rouji Aoudi is one of the few parts of
Mauritania with the potential for large-scale development. In
1989, indiscriminate attacks on Pulaar-speaking people flared
into a brutal campaign that forced out more than 70,000
landowners – persecution that human-rights groups describe as a
Bosnia that the rich world ignored.
When the soldiers arrived, most of the villagers, including
Dia’s family, fled, paddling pirogues across the river to
Senegal. Dia and a half-dozen other men never made it.
The soldiers caught them and arrested them. They marched them
20 miles along the river at gunpoint to what Dia later would
describe as “a military labor camp” at Mbagne. Moorish
authorities have jailed hundreds of Pulaar-speaking people as
political prisoners, and other dark-skinned Mauritanians are
condemned to work as indentured slaves.
The soldiers put Dia and the others to work tilling hard soil
and hauling rocks. Apparently, the Moors believed rocks near
Mbagne contained iron. They used the prisoners as miners. In the
camp, soldiers fed Dia very little.
Others fared worse. In Rouji Aoudi, soldiers gang-raped a
local beauty named Djeneba Baidy. As refugees tell the story,
her parents rescued her one night, led her to the river, sent
her away in a pirogue to Senegal. She took shelter with Dia’s
uncle, Djiby, in Diorbivol. When the soldiers found she was
gone, they threatened to kill the parents if Djeneba wasn’t
returned. Resigned, Djeneba’s brother Adama crossed the river to
collect his sister at Djiby’s house in Diorbivol. The two headed
back to Rouji Aoudi. As they were approaching the village,
soldiers with machine guns opened fire, mowed them down and left
them dying in the dirt.
After two months, the soldiers released Dia and other
prisoners, and ordered them out of Mauritania across the Senegal
River. Dia searched for his family at the Thilogne refugee camp.
When he found them eventually at a camp near Matam, his parents
looked defeated and old. He stayed with them for a few weeks.
But he knew, without asking, there was only one thing to do.
The ethnic cleansing in Mauritania forced Dia to leave rural
Africa for a fundamentally different world.
He squeezed into a 16-seat Car Rapide bus and set out for
Dakar, Senegal’s capital. It was a 12-hour drive down a pocked
two-lane blacktop road that curls across the threshold between
traditional and modern. The closer Dia got to Dakar, the busier
life became. There were more cars, and they moved faster.
Streetside stacks of watermelons for sale grew higher. There
were more merchants, and their voices grew more and more
aggressive. There were power lines and factories of all sorts
making tissues and phosphates and battery acid.
In Dakar, Dia shared a room with a cousin in the crowded slum
of Pikine. He worked shining shoes, lugging a box of rags and
polish. He charged about 20 cents a shine. He saved up enough to
travel, by train and bus, to Abidjan, capital of Ivory Coast,
and later to Libreville, capital of oil-rich Gabon. In these
cities, Dia bought and sold costume jewelry, stringing the
necklaces enticingly across his long, slender fingers and
smiling so that maybe pedestrians would stop.
In this new, busy city world, family life fit in on the side.
On one brief visit to Diorbivol, Dia married Mariam. On
another visit, he rejoiced at the birth of a daughter. Two years
later, Mariam gave birth to another daughter. Dia told her he
also wanted a son. And he wanted to stay with the family. But
the family needed money. Life was tearing Dia apart.
He left again, vowing to return one day and keep their
fractured family together. He promised Mariam he wouldn’t be
like his oldest brother, who went to France 25 years ago and
never came home.
Yet living up to that promise – a promise made by millions of
African men – became incredibly hard. Between 1970 and 1990,
economies crashed and jobs disappeared across Africa, where 270
million people live on less than $1 a day. Conflicts flared from
Kano to Kinshasa. An old bailout option for West Africans in
former French colonies – migrating to Paris – was closed off
under tough new immigration rules.
Dia grew desperate. And on June 3, 1994, he boarded his first
airplane, the Air Afrique flight to New York, where his cousin
Sileye Gaye was living in a basement in Brooklyn. Dia had
embarked on the heart-driven struggle that led millions of
immigrants from around the world into better lives in America.
Almost as soon as he landed at Kennedy International Airport,
he felt a new “time is money” ethic sweeping him up like a
He hailed a cab, and gave Gaye’s address on Dean Street. When
the cab arrived, Gaye emerged from the two-bedroom basement. Dia
got out, said: “America, it’s not like what you hear once you
arrive. It’s harder.”
Gaye knew what he meant. Sometimes Gaye missed Africa so much
he stayed awake all night thinking. If only there were more jobs
At first, the two worked together as street vendors. “Seven
to seven,” they would say, referring to their 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
They’d hurry, hurry, catch the A or C train to Manhattan.
There, at a wholesale warehouse, they’d buy discounted
merchandise – Tommy Hilfiger knockoffs, watches – then haul the
stuff back to Brooklyn to sell on the streets.
It was anxious work, complicated by neighborhood gangsters.
When street vendors started packing guns for protection, police
told them: You fight, you both go to jail. Some vendors still
carried bats to scare off gangsters. “We never worked like this
before,” Gaye said, referring to the long hours and the danger.
At night, they retreated to the basement, ate together and
prayed to Allah. After praying, Dia would sit for a few minutes
stroking his red prayer beads contemplatively.
“Alhamdoulilahi,” he would whisper. Thanks be to God.
Meanwhile, across the world, Dia’s mother, Aissata, was
praying, too, in her crumbling adobe hut. Aissata thought about
her son even when she was sleeping. She missed him. Yet facing a
severe drought, she relied on the money he sent to buy rice and
“In ancient times, there used to be everything here in the
forest,” she explained to her villagers when they asked about
Dia. “Everything we needed was right here. Man did not need to
go away to get things for the family. But now that the wars have
destroyed everything, man is obliged to go abroad to find things
for the family. Many of our fields have been confiscated.”
Here’s the real tragedy of Oumar Dia’s life: Starting in
1996, he was actually managing to make his miracle – the
American miracle – happen the way it’s supposed to. He found a
better job in New York, running a trash compactor for a
janitorial company. Remembering his imprisonment in Mauritania,
he also filed two applications for political asylum.
“The situation in Mauritania has not improved, and I still
fear returning there,” Dia wrote. In the United States, he
sought “protection and relief from the atrocities I have
He seldom took time off work. One day he made an exception.
He rode the ferry from the southern tip of Manhattan to the
Statue of Liberty. He came back smiling.
And in July 1996, after two years in New York City, he
boarded a Greyhound bus for Colorado. He’d heard that a growing
number of West African immigrants earned good money there, and
that Colorado was cheaper than New York. Africans said they felt
less racial tension than in New York.
In Denver, he shared a third-floor apartment off East Colfax
Avenue with fellow Africans. He found work as a janitor at the
Hyatt hotel Downtown. He wore a white uniform and earned $6.50
an hour. And he enrolled in an English class at Emily Griffith
Opportunity School. He took copious notes.
“I am tired” and “She is lonely” are two sentences he
wrote in a workbook.
On Nov. 12, 1996, his application for political asylum was
approved. Dia cried. He celebrated over dinner and fruit juice
with friends. For an African migrant, asylum status means you
can at least think of visiting home without worrying about not
being able to get back into the United States.
And Dia was thinking a lot about his family in Diorbivol. He
sent back $200 a month. He figured out how to phone home through
an expensive and tedious process.
Once a month, he dialed the number of a shop run by Abdul
N’Diaye in Orefonde, a town near Diorbivol. Dia would tell
whoever answered to send somebody to Diorbivol to tell Mariam
Dia that her husband in America would try to call the next day
and to be by the phone in Orefonde. She would walk there, two
hours each way. Sometimes, when Dia couldn’t get off work at the
Hyatt, she waited all day for a call from the United States that
But when they did connect, Mariam’s heart leapt at the
sensation of hearing Dia’s voice.
“How are the children?” he would say. “The family? What is
They made plans. They relied on Mamadou Gaye, Dia’s cousin
who lived in Dakar, to relay goods and transfer money. There are
no banks, not even a power line, in Diorbivol. When Amadou was
sick with an open sore on his stomach, Gaye brought the boy to
Dakar for medical treatment.
For the future, Dia envisioned a solar panel on his family’s
roof so his children could see at night. He wanted to help fix
the machine that pumped water up from the river to irrigate rice
paddies. He thought about maybe moving Mariam and the children
to Dakar, where schools were better – maybe even flying them to
Colorado. On the night before he was killed, he telephoned Gaye
in Brooklyn and said he was missing his family too much. This
system of living apart made no sense to him.
“I want to bring them out here,” he told Gaye. “They’d be
More than anything, Dia wanted to meet Amadou, his son who
was born after he left for the United States. Now that he had
papers, he promised Mariam he would visit this coming summer, no
matter what. He set aside some money he usually sent home to buy
a plane ticket.
“That’s why this year we couldn’t have new clothes,” Mariam
He would get to know his children at last. Then it all fell
Maybe it was Dia’s determination to see his son Amadou that
explains why he didn’t fight back that night Nov. 18.
He’d just finished work at the Hyatt, was sitting on a 17th
Street bus bench waiting for the last No. 20 bus, which was due
to come by at 11:49 p.m. Jeannie VanVelkinburgh, a single mother
he’d never seen before, joined him waiting by the bench.
Denver police reports describe what happened next. About
11:40, Nathan Thill, a 19-year-old who called himself a
supremacist skinhead, and a friend, with a few beers inside
them, approached the bus bench. They saw Dia. They taunted him
and called him racist names. Finally, they knocked his cap off,
onto the pavement.
VanVelkinburgh reached and picked up the cap. As she was
handing it back to Dia, at 11:46, one of the men opened fire. He
pumped three bullets into Dia’s upper chest and neck. Then, as
VanVelkinburgh turned trying to flee, the killer fired another
bullet into her back that left her paralyzed. Thill later
confessed to the killing. He said he targeted Dia “because he
was black” and didn’t belong in America.
At 12:15 a.m. in the Denver Health Medical Center emergency
room, Dr. Brad Post pronounced Dia dead.
Is that Oumar?” comes the voice of 3-year-old Amadou in
Diorbivol, mid-December, two weeks before Ramadan.
He has glimpsed a framed photo of Dia that village elders are
passing around as they look over condolence letters I delivered
from Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, Dia’s classmates and dozens
of other people in Colorado.
The elders are sitting on the floor of a 12-by-14-foot room.
They nod as a visiting graduate student I hired slowly
translates Webb’s letter into the local Pulaar.
Afterward, the elders make public speeches of thanks to Webb,
President Clinton and the thousands of Coloradans who attended
public anti-hate rallies after the slaying. The killing was a
tragedy for which people of Denver “should be embarrassed,”
Barka Dia allows. Yet the sympathetic way Denver leaders dealt
with Dia’s death – from paying to send Dia’s body to Diorbivol
to prosecution of the crime – leaves the villagers heartened.
“We consider Americans to be the leading people in the
world,” Barka Dia says.
Yet here in this village, where people have virtually
nothing, nearly every family has delivered me a meal to eat. And
the elders have given me a goat – enough meat to feed a family
here for several days. This African village – with such marginal
prospects for the 21st century – is a cradle of basic human
The elders tell me villagers have accepted Dia’s death as fate.
Fate is the standard explanation African villagers settle on
when their migrant sons are slain far away. Of the thousands of
Africans who set out from Senegal’s old slave port of Dakar, at
least 40 were murdered in New York over the past five years,
government officials told me. Most were gypsy cabdrivers,
serving dangerous neighborhoods that other cabdrivers avoid. In
each case, villagers mourned. Yet village elders won’t hesitate
to send out more sons to America, government officials said,
because the murders were fate and the villagers have no better
Now in Diorbivol, Dia’s people explain intently that they’re
struggling to move beyond their grief. But there’s so much to
do. For example, the broken water pump. Nobody can afford to fix
it, let alone pay for the fuel to run it. The rice paddies are
drying up, and food supplies are dwindling. Store-bought rice in
Orefonde costs too much. Then there are sick villagers with
runny noses and watery eyes.
Amadou squirms insistently in the arms of his sisters –
5-year-old Djeneba and 7-year-old Makai. The girls remember
their father. They are fine-boned, gentle, content to be quiet,
the way Oumar appears in videos taken before the murder. They
like to play by the river, scooping mud from the banks, molding
it into pirogues and cows. If American children come to
Diorbivol, Makai informs me, “I will take them down to the
river to play.”
As Amadou squirms, Barka Dia, draped in blue robes, clears
his throat, then lays out concerns that are far more pressing
here than the abstract concept of justice. He points at the
children. Makai should be starting school, but the teacher
appointed to work in Diorbivol hasn’t shown up. The family can’t
afford to send the children away to school.
“I am 80 years old now,” he says as the villagers fall
silent. His left hand shakes, still clutching those empty
bottles of glaucoma medicine that he needs.
“As you can see, I cannot work, I cannot do anything,” he
says. “I was always waiting for Oumar to give me things. What
we are eating now was given to us by Oumar. Everything we have
now came from Oumar. And he’s got these three children, two
daughters and one son. These children cannot live if you in the
United States don’t help us.”
The only silent adult on this day is 27-year-old Mariam Dia,
Dia’s widow. Tall and slender, downturned face shrouded in
purple, she’s following a tradition of mourning in seclusion and
silence for three months. But she makes an exception on behalf
of her children.
“If I had the means, I would send my children to study
abroad,” she says. “The men who are responsible for Dia’s
death, I pray to God they may help us, so that we can raise the
children in the best way.”
She pauses for a moment, thinking of the long road from
Mauritania to murder, and how her family in Africa fits into the
modern world. She sighs.
“The best place for the children,” she says resolutely,
“would be the United States.”
Friends of Oumar Dia, local Muslims and Dia’s employers at
the Downtown Denver Hyatt Regency Hotel have been collecting
money since Dia was killed Nov. 18. The goal is to provide for
Dia’s family, said John Schafer, general manager at the hotel.
So far, more than $20,000 has been raised.
Donations can be made to:
MEMORIAL FUND FOR OUMAR DIA,
c/o Norwest Bank,
1740 Broadway, MS 8671,
attn: PERSONAL BANKING.
For more information, contact John Schafer, general
manager, Hyatt Regency Denver, 1750 Welton St., Denver 80202.