As Gambia crisis passes, displaced return from Senegal
ZINGUINCHOR, Senegal – John* could not hide the relief on his face as he waited with his wife and children for a bus at Senegal’s Selety border crossing to take them back to their home in the Gambia after two weeks of awful uncertainty.
“It is over, we are going back home,” he grinned, one of more than an estimated 8,000 people, as of Monday, who have returned to their native Gambia since the political crisis there ended when former president Yahya Jammeh ceded power on Friday and went into exile a day later.
John explained that he decided to leave his home in the town of Kunkujang-Mariam, in the Serrekunda region, a fortnight ago, as Jammeh refused to accept the results of the December 1 presidential election, which was won by opposition leader Adama Barrow. This sparked a regional crisis and prompted more than 76,000 people to seek shelter in Senegal according Senegalese authorities.
“We just did not know how things would turn out. Thank God, the blood bath has been avoided,” 42-year-old John said, echoing the thoughts of many who had feared the situation in the Gambia could tip into violence. Like many he praised host families for their warm welcome in Senegal.
“It is over, we are going back home.”
“People have opened their homes for us, we stayed with a family we did not even know. They have been very, very nice.”
Authorities in the Gambia are sending buses to border points to help the displaced return home. John and his wife and children prepared to take one to West Field Junction, in the Serrekunda region. From there, they planned to hire a car or take a taxi.
On Saturday, 530 people crossed back through the Selety border crossing in Senegal’s Ziguinchor region. On Sunday, the number grew to over 3,700, with as many again on Monday, some heading home in private cars, on motorcycles, or hoping to board a bus. Others have been going back to the Gambia through informal crossings on the northern and southern borders.
Some returning by boat to Banjul, the Gambian capital, are arriving on crowded ferries which are reportedly old and unsafe. During the crisis, people fled or hid in their homes, turning Banjul into a ghost town. A team from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Banjul says that some normalcy has begun to return, as some schools and shops re-open.
During the political impasse, thousands of displaced people from the Gambia have been hosted by families in Senegal. Many, like Mariama* - who is hosting up to 15 people in her home, including a cousin and her baby - have struggled to feed them.
“People have opened their homes for us. We stayed with a family we did not even know."
“I used to cook one kilo of rice a day for my own family,” said Mariama. “Now, with the new people I am hosting in my home, I cook three to four kilos a day. I had to dig into our food resources to feed everyone. It is okay – we need to help them – but now, in order to have extra money to buy rice, I prepare and sell breakfasts to people in my neighbourhood.”
To meet the needs of both displaced people and their hosts, the Senegalese government has been quick to act. The authorities have delivered and distributed several tons of food to the displaced and host families – including rice, oil and sugar.
Forty tons of rice arrived in Ziguinchor region in last week and distribution has started in several villages hosting displaced people. In addition to food aid, the government is also providing mattresses, matts, sheets, blankets, and soap to those in need.
UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies and NGOs continue to stand ready to help the Senegalese authorities to assist the displaced, as needed. Together, UN teams continue to monitor the border.
An estimated 3,500 people also sought safety in Guinea-Bissau in the past 10 days. The Gambian embassy there has asked for UNHCR’ s assistance to help those people return home.
* Names changed for protection reasons