Gambians are turning to the migrant route perilously trekking across the Sahara to cross the Mediterranean into Europe with President Yahya Jammeh’s refusal to step down.
Ansu Sanyang works as a fisherman and had been saving to use the ‘backway,’ the migrant route to Europe. He hopes reaching Europe will give him better economic prospects to free him from the Gambia’s suffering economy.
President Yahya Jammeh’s human rights abuses, bad governance, and interference with economic policies have been blamed for the mass exodus of Gambians.
A nation of fewer than two million people, The Gambia already accounts for the highest number of migrants per capita of any nationality crossing the Mediterranean on smugglers’ boats to Italy.
When President Yahya Jammeh lost elections to businessman Adama Barrow last month, hope reignited in many Gambian youths. First-time youth voters overwhelmingly voted for Mr. Barrow on his promises to revive the economy, restore respect for human rights and end the refugee crisis.
Ansu Sanyang had changed his mind when Jammeh was defeated but is rethinking his stance since the longtime ruler has refused to cede power to Barrow, peacefully.
“I changed my mind. I was glad, very glad because I had hoped that that man (Adama Barrow) would get this,” the 25-year-old Ansu.
Young Gambians like Ansu are risking their lives to reach Europe in a bid to escape the political turmoil left by Gambia’s ruthless ex-president.
Sanyang is from a fishing village called Sanyang, 27 miles southwest of the capital Banjul. Ansu rides in the more than 300 fishing pirogues – long brightly painted mahogany boats that go out to sea to bring fish.
All afternoon they return in ones and twos, full of fish, sea snails, shiny black snappers, bongo, butterfish, ladyfish and small sting rays.
As the boats return, their crew beach the boat and await help. Slowly, other fishermen wander down the beach to the water’s edge, pushing a few old logs which will act as rollers under the boat.
Once there are ten to twenty men on each side of the boat, the task of heaving the boat up the beach begins. These are big and heavy wooden boats and it is hot, very hot in mid-afternoon.
Slowly the boat is moved up the beach, the rollers are moved from back to front as the boat progresses. Once it is high enough, in line with the other boats, it is chocked up and everyone takes a rest, chats a little and then starts to wander back down the beach to help the next boat’s crew. There is no payment for helping other boats – it is just what you do. They help you, you help them.
In Sanyang, fishing and heaving boats are men’s work. Women, often with an infant tied to their back, get the task of processing the catch. Gutting is immediate and done on the beach, much to the gulls and terns delight. Smoking, salting, and chilling takes place in the sheds at the back.
This was Ansu’s hard routine to take care of his family.
The future for Gambian youths is very uncertain now. Jammeh is trying to put off their hopes that they aspire to find in a new Gambia.
Many Gambians died in their attempt to reach Europe. In some villages, no able-bodied young person could be found. They have all gone to try their chance, regardless of the news of many families losing three or four members at once.
Samba Mbengu, a mechanic, recalls the endless fights he had with his brother, Ali “Mille Franc” Mbengu, a rising star on the wrestling circuit who worked as a tailor by day.
“He insisted he wanted to travel and in order to convince him to stay, I bought him a sewing machine, but even after all that he wouldn’t give up,” Mbengu recalled.
After months of arguing, Mbengu agreed to finance the trip and stayed in close contact with his brother as he made his way through to Libya.
“I never anticipated I was going to spend this much money,” he told AFP, refusing to give a precise figure but admitting it was more than US$2,500.
“He called me telling me how much pressure they came under from the agents over there, and how sometimes they could be maltreated if the money isn’t sent on time,” Mbengu added.
One week in November, his brother’s usual phone calls stopped. Ali was one of the deaths when a boat capsized off the coast of Libya. He was not the only sports figure to die.
The goalkeeper of the female soccer team who was praised for a world-class performance in Azerbaijan died attempting to cross the Mideterrenean into Europe.
Fatima Jawara, believed to have been just 19, was on board a boat that ran into trouble crossing from Libya to Europe. She was hoping to start a new life and play for a team there.
More than 3,300 migrants have lost their lives in the Mediterranean last year, making it the world’s most dangerous border crossing.
“Her death is untimely, but we will remember her for her great performances on the pitch,” said Chorro Mbenga, who was the assistant coach of the national under-17 side in which Jawara made her breakthrough and knew her well.
Many Gambians face racism, get tortured and money is extorted from them. Families back home are intimidated to send money for their kidnapped relatives to be freed.
Many work long laborious hours on the streets to make enough money to make it to the next stop on their journey.
In Zuwara, a port city in northwestern Libya, with a population of around 80,000, famous for its beautiful beaches and abundant seafood – one the most important starting points in Libya for boats of migrants that try to reach the southern coasts of Europe – Gambians slave to get enough money to go to Tripoli, 63 miles west of Tripoli and 37 miles from the Tunisian border.
The Gambian economy has suffered several blows in the last three years, making life extremely hard for those without connections to the ruling party or family in Europe sending back remittances.
A 2013 drought was followed by the region’s Ebola crisis, which despite never actually touching The Gambia itself scared off tourists who account for 20 percent of GDP.
Then a dispute over tariffs with Senegal, whose territory surrounds The Gambia, effectively cut the country off from supplies for months.
Many Gambians, who have lived through President Yahya Jammeh’s increasingly authoritarian rule, have resorted to leaving the country to chase a European dream.
The UN Refugee Agency said several thousand Gambians, mainly woman, children and elderly, have crossed to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau to escape growing tension over the results of last month’s presidential election.
Diplomatic efforts for President Yahya Jammeh to step down were unsuccessful and the President-elect Adama Barrow has been sent to take cover in Dakar, Senegal’s capital ahead of a possible deployment of ECOWAS troops to oust Jammeh.
(Reporting by AFP and The Sun, Writing by Sam Phatey with Gill and Ali Stair; Photos by Maryse Godden and AFP; Editing by Sam Phatey)