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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Through the desert and over the Ocean: My ‘back way’ journey to Europe

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with Momodou Darboe

It was a long, grueling drive through the night to the colonial Senegalese city of St Louis. The journey began at Poste Thiaroye in Dakar amidst light showers. It was the beginning of the 2013 rains in Senegal and the beginning of a life-changing voyage through land, desert and sea to Europe.

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I fled The Gambia in 2008 and went into self-imposed exile in the neighbouring Senegal. There, I joined a league of Gambian exiles as the former tyrant tightened his grip on power, ruled with a fist of iron and unleashed unbridled terror on those he perceived as enemies.

Senegal, most especially Dakar was the sanctuary. A plethora of Gambians, including journalists, politicians, former security officers, senior government functionaries and ordinary citizens found themselves in this vast and somehow strange city having fled for fear of assassination, imprisonment and other forms of persecution at the hands of the hatchet men of the brutal and a mindless dictator back home.

When I fled The Gambia in 2008, I didn’t exactly know where I was going to and I hadn’t taken much time to prepare for it like many flights of its ilk. How I weathered life’s storm in Senegal is a story for another day. Anyway, I spent five years in the wide and the difficult-to-navigate metropolis of Dakar.

In 2013, I decided to go on a rollercoaster of West Africa. Living in exile in Dakar was nightmarish in many ways. Senegal’s propinquity to The Gambia gave frequency to rumours of abduction or attempts of it on so-called Gambian dissidents living there. It was also a common knowledge that the former Gambian dictator was obviously exasperated with President Abdoulaye Wade and was never hesitant to exhibit how infuriated he was with Wade for providing a safe haven for his perceived enemies. So, when I left Senegal, it was the Islamic Republic of Mauritania that I hightailed to.

The 7-seater passenger vehicle that I joined in Dakar arrived in St. Louis at around 3am and unlike Dakar which was reputed for never falling asleep, Ndar as the locals call the city of Faidherbe, was already sleeping. And this presented a dilemma! In the sense that I was lost in this city of high rises and the thought of gentlemen of the highway was not also helpful. After lurking in the desolate city for nearly half-an-hour in indecision, I decided to go back to the motor park to pass the night there. It was a voyage of more than several hours and hunger had already crept in. But at that time in Ndar, many food vendors were probably snoring. The city was eerily quiet and the thought of living it through the night dominated every move and therefore the desire to quench a near-famine was relegated to the backseat of the medulla oblongata.

I stayed awake until 5am when the engines of passenger vehicles started roaring and it became apparent to me that I had to take the next move. That next move was to board a cab for Rosso, Senegal. I arrived at Rosso in the morning and after going through border checks, I was cleared and moved in to Rosso Mauritanie to begin another grueling several hours’ journey through the desert and sand dunes to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. The drive was eventful. It was excruciating but full of experiences of rural life in Mauritania. Rural Mauritania is called the badea but it will amaze you to see the resilience of the nomads whose way of life hinges critically on climate. Weather conditions greatly influence their lives. Vagaries in weather can displace entire communities and jeopardise livelihoods. I was left in awe as I drove through the desolate desert settlements in silence trying to fathom how life would be in this part of the world.

I arrived in Nouakchott in the afternoon and found my brother at the car park to receive me. It was all hugging and handshaking and enquiries of each other’s wellbeing. We were all apparently overwhelmed with emotions. It was five years ago when I last saw him in Dakar. He came there to deliver my passport which I left behind in The Gambia. At that time, I was preparing for an enlistment in the British Army and the Overseas Cell of the force endorsed my application but to enable me leave for the United Kingdom for recruitment, I had needed my passport. It was imaginable the thrill that the meeting of the two brothers who had not seen each other for five years provided. We embraced each other and he took me to his house at Quincheme, a suburb in Nouakchott with a preponderance of migrants. It was a new experience. Different monies, commodities, codes of dress… The déjà vu was not automatic but it came in time. As I savoured Mauritania, one of my brothers sent me money and it was this cash that I used to move to Mali before joining hundreds of Gambian youths in Burkina Faso on the back-way migratory route. It was already 2014 and close to the peak of migration crisis in Europe. It was also the period when thousands of Gambian youths disillusioned at the ability of their government to make life live-able for them decided to risk lives and limbs to seek better life in Europe. At the time, The Gambia was the highest per capita in its contribution to Europe’s migration problem.

But the night before we (I and my brother) went to Sonef Tours to book a seat, BBC World Service broke news that 80 migrants, mostly Nigeriens were reported dead in the desert. They reportedly starved to death. Immediately this was announced, my brother sprang up from his bed and looking at his eyes, I already understood the unspoken words that he had wanted to tell me. But before he spoke, I told him categorically clear that I have already made up my mind and we must go to Nouakchott city centre the next day to buy a ticket for Bamako. And that was how it panned out. We bought the ticket the next day and after wishes of bon voyage from his end and prayers of good wellbeing for him in Mauritania on my part, I boarded the bus for the Mauritania-Mali border. We arrived at the border at night and had to spend the night at the terminus. It was the second time that I had to spend a night in an open air. And it was not to be the last. On this migratory routes to Europe, roof over the top never mattered. It was an experience that many of us had never prepared ourselves for but we got ourselves around it. This was why phrases such as ‘You never know the sweetness of Gambia until you step out’ gained frequency in the back-way community. It was apparent that many young Gambians were ill-prepared for this ‘triangular voyage’ to Europe as one of my travelling companions, former primary school teacher, Matarr Njie from Farafenni, aptly defined it. I passed the night at the terminus and in the morning I was subjected to some border control and then cleared to proceed.

Traveling through the borders of West Africa was a nightmare. Illegal checkpoints, extortion, physical and mental torture at the hands of border security personnel were some of the things that made travelling through West Africa hell. Checkpoints were close and many in between. It beats one’s imagination to think of the pontification about the African unity. And the checkpoints reminded me of the Ivorian singer Tiken Jah Fakoly’s song ‘Open the Borders’ (Ouvrez les Frontières). When we entered Mali, I had decided that I was not going to bribe any security officer! But how was I to do that? As I pondered over the solution to this pestering problem of extortion, I realised that I had some of my press credentials in my bag. A sigh of relief! Indeed, I have now discovered that I had both the arm and ammunitions that could decide the outcome of any battle. I had in my bag a letter of engagement from the BBC South East TV, a certificate from the Commonwealth Press Union and the Child Protection Alliance of The Gambia. It was a game-changer. Indeed a big one that put me on the pedestal and allowed me to intimidate the police, the military and gendarmes with glee. When we entered Mali, I confidently walked up to the bus driver, a stout Hausa man from Niger and showed him my papers. I introduced myself as a journalist who was on a fact-finding mission to the Sahara Desert. The purported mission was to investigate the death of 80 migrants there. At first, the driver was subdued and it was then that I knew bus drivers and the security officials worked in cahoots to swindle unsuspecting travelers. He invited me to sit around him further reinforcing my suspicion. This was the beginning of a hassle-free journey because the driver now made it a duty to single me out of the rest whenever we arrived at checkpoints and whenever he wrongly introduced me as an RFI journalist, I was treated like a king.

It was already nightfall when I arrived in Bobo Dioulasso from Bamako. I should have arrived in the city before nightfall but a road mishap involving a truck laden with consumables had delayed us in the middle of nowhere. Bobo Dioulasso was already awake when the Sonef bus arrived there in the late evening. The city was literally on edge. Meat sellers, prostitutes, ticket touts and all those who profiteer from unsuspecting travelers were on top of their games. A travelling companion had confided in me that this was a dangerous city where travellers can get stranded. Others would get trapped by patronising workers of the darkness while others can’t just get around the cunning tricks of touts and those whose jobs were to hoodwink eager travellers by narrating enticing tales to profiteer.

Some of these tales included shortcuts to bigger cities, roads safe from robbers and promises of linking travellers to smugglers. I could not establish how many young Gambians have fallen prey to some of these schemes. While in Sikasso in Mali, I met two dejected, worn-out and famished young boys from Bakau. As I savoured my grasshopper-spiced beans with cassava and sauce in a makeshift restaurant, I heard a familiar dialect. The boys were returning from Bobo Dioulasso where they told me they have lost almost everything and after languishing in the city for days and weeks, they had decided to go back home to The Gambia with the support of some relatives. Tales of similar experiences abound in the Gambian back-way community. I spent some time in Bobo Dioulasso and decided to head up north to Ouagadougou so that I may be able to cross over to Niger. The journey to the capital was smooth with no major incidents except some few extortions here and there.

When I arrived in Niamey, the Nigerien capital, scores of migrants were returning from Agadez where the police and gendarmerie had laid a siege of the city. The security in Agadez, 2,000 km from Niamey, was unusually beefed up after the Nigerien government under Mahamadou Issoufou, came under a deluge of sweltering criticism and rebuke from the international community for its perceived lethargy in stemming the flow of illegal migration to Europe. This followed another mass macabre of migrant deaths in the Sahara Desert.
To be continued…
Momodou Darboe is a senior reporter with The Standard newspaper. He was the chief reporter at The Point newspaper at the time of Deyda Hydara’s assassination.

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