KARANG, Senegal – Pa Mbehmba had hoped that his last breath would be in his homeland, Gambia. But a few hours before his wife was supposed to return from a neighboring village to fetch him, the 80-something-year-old man passed away in his sleep, on the night of January 22.
News of outgoing president Yahya Jammeh’s departure from Gambia was just reaching his community – a refugee camp in the border town of Karang, in northern Senegal, where Mbehmba had spent years in limbo, along with thousands of other Gambians. The very next day Gambia’s newly elected president, Adama Barrow, sent buses to carry his citizens from the Senegalese side of the border back to their homes.
Mbehmba was buried in Karang. But the rest of his family, along with more than 6,400 other Gambians, returned to their country the same night, according to the NGO HelpGambia, which assisted with transfers.
Mbehmba belonged to the older generations of refugees – tens of thousands of whom have been outside Gambia for years, some for the entire span of Jammeh’s rule. Many fled individual persecution on the grounds of politics, tribal affiliations and activism opposing Jammeh.
Gambians exiled in Senegal also include those who fled in the immediate aftermath of Jammeh’s defeat in the December elections. While cautiously optimistic, both they and the longer-term exiles are waiting for the political situation in Gambia to normalize. They are eager to see Adama Barrow exert control.
Barrow’s election victory was a historic turning point for a country held hostage for 22 years by what was purportedly the most brutal dictatorship of Africa. Jammeh initially refused to accept the election results and Barrow was inaugurated in Senegal. But on January 21, with the looming threat of regional military intervention, Jammeh flew into exile.
The news was met with jubilation in towns on the Senegal-Gambia border. The sound of freedom chants, singing and clapping rang out. Women and children beat empty gallon drums and danced.
Despite the eventual peaceful handover of power, Jammeh leaves behind a formidable political legacy and loyalists in the armed forces and in the parliament. In Gambia’s capital, Bangul, members of the Gambian armed forces bid tearful goodbyes to Jammeh, as he boarded a plane to Equatorial Guinea. Understandably, many Gambians, especially those who fled his rule, still wonder if democratic transition will lead to political emancipation, given that Jammeh’s allies are entrenched in the domestic terrain – from the security apparatus to the judiciary.
Among those who recently fled Gambia is Binta Jallow, a 30-year-old woman from Barra, a town north of Banjul. She left with her siblings and mother about a week after Jammeh refused to give up power. Jallow’s brother volunteered to stay behind to guard their home.
The family of around a dozen people is confined to two small rooms with little water and no electricity near the border, spending nights huddled on mattresses on the floor. Jallow said she would only return home once Barrow had settled into his role.
Aisha and Fatou, each accompanied by a child, also fled several weeks ago fearing violence when Jammeh refused to step down. They worked in the tourism industry in Gambia and, having exhausted their limited funds, are eager to return to work and start anew.
“I thought it was just the women fleeing,” Aisha said, when she discovered I was also Gambian and was heading to the border.
A majority of the refugees in the border regions are women and children who fled outbreaks of violence, while a significant number of those living in Dakar are political refugees, and usually male.
Gambian women have experienced high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, even before Jammeh came to power in a 1994 coup. Rape, torture and killings were rife under Jammeh’s rule. It became common for women and children to flee first during periods of political upheaval.
Many of the political refugees in Dakar, including former officials, political activists and journalists who fled Jammeh’s tyranny, are also planning to return. Ebrima Sanneh, who worked as a police inspector for 18 years, feels it is now safe to start “serving his country again.” Sanneh was forced to flee Banjul because of his role in a sting operation targeting international drug traffickers who had ties to the upper echelons of Jammeh’s government.
“I was arrested and taken to court over trumped-up charges after this bust,” Sanneh says. “The court freed me but the government appealed against the decision.”
There are hundreds of people with cases similar to Sanneh’s in Senegal. While thousands of Gambians have applied for asylum in Senegal over the past two decades, only 41 have been recognized as refugees. Now, these undocumented refugees are hoping to reach home by the “official” inauguration of Barrow on Feb. 18. Many former public servants are hoping to get their jobs back upon returning to Gambia.
Hopes for Reform
Pharing Sanyang, who served in the Gambian armed forces for many years, fled to Dakar in 2006 after surviving several assassination attempts. He says he witnessed two of his colleagues being murdered by soldiers who claimed to be acting on orders from “the highest authorities.” Sanyang has already returned to Gambia and is hoping to re-enlist in the army.
There has been much talk of reform in Gambia since Barrow took power. The new president pledged that the reform process would lead to changes in the attitude and operational style of security agencies and help unite the country. High-ranking officials will be audited on their performances. This is a 180-degree turn from Jammeh’s corruption and unabashed patronage of officials based on their tribal identities.
Barrow has also promised greater freedom of expression in Gambia. The last effort for media reform in 2004 was quickly suppressed and many of the journalists and activists involved fled to Senegal.
Now a new Freedom of Information law will create an independent broadcasting regulatory body. Barrow pledged in his campaign that new media laws will provide alternative dispute resolution measures to address cases of libel rather than blanket criminalizing of speech. This could mean that scores of journalists like myself will be able to work again in Gambia.
Despite the prospect of reform, some Gambian refugees have chosen not to return for reasons ranging from economic to personal. Unlike Pa Mbehmba’s family, mourning his death while starting their new lives in Gambia, Ejatou, a Gambian woman who was widowed when living in Dakar, has decided not to go back.
She fled Gambia with her husband more than five years ago. He died in 2015, away from home. “I have already began cultivating a life here,” Ejatou said. “Living in Banjul again without my husband will be painful for me to bear while his body is laid here in Dakar.”
This story has been updated to correct that older generations of refugees have been outside Gambia for years, not inside the country.
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