Gambians have been for the most part being refugees in many countries since President Yahya Jammeh came to power, but what they have never imagined, is the country slipping into civil war, people fleeing to neighboring nations and being refugees in camps.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, Gambians welcomed refugees from across West Africa, especially from Sierra Leone and Ghana. Now, they may be welcomed in these countries if President Yahya Jammeh chooses the path of a military showdown to remain in power.
More than 45,000 Gambians, a majority of them children, women and the elderly have already fled the country bordered by Senegal on all three sides except for the west with its short Atlantic coastline spotted with tourists.
Former President Yahya Jammeh was defeated in last month’s elections by President Adama Barrow. Barrow was sworn-in Thursday as Jammeh continues with his defiance. The new Gambian president has authorized a West African military force to depose his rival.
Lamin Camara grew up in Basse, a bustling city in provincial Gambia known for having some of the most delicious grilled mutton. As the heated sun in the eastern Gambian city, 232 miles from the capital, Banjul bakes the soil, Camara remembers playing soccer barefooted with his friends.
The thought of the Gambia going into civil war got him crying as his childhood memories derived from the joy of playing soccer in the streets.
Camara left the Gambia nearly a decade ago but before then he had seen in Yahya Jammeh what many failed to see. He joined the PDOIS party, which is one of the political groups that formed the opposition alliance that defeated Jammeh. He campaigned against Jammeh’s regime and pedaled his bicycle across town to meet the people.
Living in Europe, Camara has his family still in Gambia – his father, mother, siblings and a large extended family – that he takes care of. He has invested most is savings in his native home, including in a property.
Camara’s father is a political stalwart. Jambo Camara is an organizer for the opposition coalition that was led by the Gambia’s new President Adama Barrow in the Basse area.
Basse is the epicenter of former President Yahya Jammeh’s election dispute, where he claims more than 25,000 of his supporters were intimidated to return home.
It has not just put Lamin Camara’s father’s life at risk but nearly two million others.
Camara is thousands of miles away from Gambia. He is left sadden and emotionally malnourished by the turn of events and the fact that is unable to be at the forefront to protect the victory of Gambians from being stolen.
Military action comes as West African states ramp up pressure on Yahya Jammeh to step down.
Jammeh had declared a state of emergency to regain control. To Gambians, their lives under his repressive regime have been a state of emergency. The longtime ruler detained, killed and tortured political opponents, journalists, and activists, closed borders at his pleasure and imposed curfews enforced by ‘bulldozer’ soldiers.
West African leaders are in The Gambia once again to try to persuade Yahya Jammeh to cede power to his elected successor.
A regional military force that crossed the border in support of his President Adama Barrow, was awaiting orders on Friday. Marcel Alain de Souza, chair of the west African union Ecowas, said troops would force Jammeh out if he refused to leave the country.
At the Senegalese border, Ali Cham and Alieu Bah volunteer to care for their fellow Gambian refugees.
The number of arrivals is increasing every day and resources are being stretched.
Big silver iron pots stand at somehow even distances. Underneath them are big logs of firewoods fuel the heat to cook a yellowish soup made of smoked fish, palm oil, and cassava.
The locally made ‘ebbeh’ is the most popular delicacy in the West African nation. It is sold on the streets and served at all ceremonies. The joy of having it may help to temporarily stir the mind of those stranded off the crisis.
But it was Gambians that were used to doing this for other nationals, not for their fellow citizens. It is a weird feeling and many are still in denial that the country is on such a destructive path.
People are lined up chanting peace and hopes are high that Jammeh will leave. May be, just may be, Lamin Camara will cry tears of joy when this is all over and constitutional rule gets restored to tiny nation known as the ‘Smiling coast of Africa.’
(Reporting and Writing by Sam Phatey; Photo by Cristian Sarmiento)