By Sulayman Bah
Helplessness and desolation is the underlining tone at the mention of often tragic stories of Gambians daring the Mediterranean Sea for destination Europe –locally referred to Back Way.
It’s a menace digging through society, and worryingly, it’s showing no sign of dying off too soon despite a change of leadership in the country.
Families are rendered forlorn without figure-heads, children orphaned, and mothers childless and friends robbed of acquaintances.
Undertakers of this gloomy venture, it’s understood, usually take the trip without knowledge of loved ones, endeavouring to call back home only after reaching first port-of-call Libya. The announcement that comes with such calls is the unwelcomed news to families by Back Way goers requesting to be reimbursed with money to pay up either captors or people smuggling boats.
The genius of this invention –crossing to Europe on boat – might be difficult to locate. However, what’s clear though is the route first opened up in Morocco –the closest North African country to Spain – in the mid-2000s.
Tunisia has been a failed trial before the discovery of entry point Libya – a path paved up and quickened by depose of long-term ruler, Momar Al Gaddarfi and the eventual destabilization of Libya.
Senegal is the starting point for would-be Gambian migrants and for most journey undertakers from the West of Africa.
Those from other parts of the continent have the unpleasant task of passing through Equatorial Guinea or Zimbabwe borders by bus, then Mali then Niger’s administrative capital Niamey before reaching hot spot Libya.
Rendered ungovernable by years of conflict culminating to a full-fledged internal war, Tripoli is today home to separatists pushing to gain foothold over autonomous areas.
And being an entry point to Italy, would-be migrants apart from contending with living in squalor-like camps while awaiting smuggling boats, they also have to put up with incidents of being robbed off monies at gun point by rebel soldiers.
Narrative of the maltreatment meted out to migrants there is today viewed as any other mundane occurrence.
‘Packed like sardines’ is the most used descriptive phrase employed in painting the vivid picture of the ghastly way with which migrants are handled.
Footages of black African migrants, in approximately hundreds, cramped in uncompleted bullet-ridden houses litter the net. Returnees, with every ounce of regret, talk of the severe discomfort sustained from lying on, sometimes, wet floors in dovetail position to accommodate each other.
Using abandoned houses as makeshift residence, while awaiting smuggling-boats, many inevitably suffocate, and in some instances, die.
Those, who have gone and returned, speak of harrowing accounts of how they were forced to pass out excrement on the spot in a bid to avoid wandering out and getting caught by rebel Libyan soldiers.
However, in spite of the torrid and nightmarish experiences, migrants continue to flock into Libya en masse.
Few, as in Eritrea, risk coming into Libya in a desperate effort to flee persecution or forceful conscription into the army.
Those in other parts of the continent like Gambia take the Back Way mainly in search for pastures new.
Driven by the quest for an improved livelihood and having grown disillusioned in a country that has little to offer to a burgeoning youthful population, thousands of Gambians cross the 3,900km long Mediterranean Sea on a rickety boat cramped with hundreds of occupants, triple the capacity it can take.
The grand but usually, perilous exodus is also fuelled by earlier travellers who’ve tumbled on luck and built mansions back home. The vague notion of Europe being a land of milk and honey is the first thing on the lips of such individuals when they come back on sabbaticals.
It is too good to be true as it might sound, many parents fall for it. Parents dole out their life savings, some families sell up or auction off landed properties to foot the bill for their children to take the trip with an unrealistic hope the money would be recouped when they get menial jobs in Europe.
The exodus of a country’s youthful populace comes at a glaring cost. Agriculture, Gambia’s backbone, has been left for the old and feeble and this is blamed for the gargantuan plummet in agricultural produce in recent years. Drought is another natural phenomenon pinpointed for the low yield but the absence of man power –to be specific youths – unavoidably stands out.
Braving the Ocean
The hassle to pass through border posts unnoticed might be herculean and carries with it risks. However, of more heart-wrenching, is the final trip of braving the waves of the ocean by boat with no life jackets. The majority do not live to see first port-of-call Lampedusa with chances of the boat capsizing incredibly high. The number of boats sinking has tripled at turn of the year according to a recent study. Footages of eaten floating bodies of migrants washed ashore are no longer uncommon.
Fatim Jawara, the Gambia Women’s national team goalkeeper and wrestler Mille Franc, who both drowned in their bid to cross to Italy, are probably the biggest known casualties.
Jawara, like Mille Francs, were on paltry sum as wages, and resorted to the journey as a last-ditch attempt to get out of the doldrums of poverty.
The pair’s sorrowful demise made international headlines but their death agonies live on.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Migration Organisation (IMO) peg the number of migrants’ sea deaths at about 4,000 as of March last year alone.
The few, who manage to cross, are faced with realities of a fresh start, culture shock and a hard-to-believe predicament of living a beggar’s life in a country they have virtually no relation.
It’s hard to imagine how positives could be driven from such a large scale of human devastation. But Gambia, accounting for the second largest number of migrants through this perilous trip, ironically stands to benefit sport-wise in the long term.
What started out as a social menace eating through the fabrics of society is today reaping good.
The majority of goers are usually teenagers or below 22 and take sports as an escape route upon landing. Many amateur footballers and athletes are being produced this way with the long term ambition of representing their respective country internationally.
Gambia today has over 25 players plus athletes thanks to the Back-Way. Such are Musa Balla Sowe and Lamin Jawo who dared death to cross the ocean in an audacious pursuit of their ambition to become footballers.
Today the duo have achieved their longing but on the vigorous backdrop of a severe risk-taking.
‘I thank God to have made it after all the hardship and suffering which I expected. So, all I can say is “Alhamdulillah”. But it was the worst experience of my life and I’ll never forget about it,’ Jawo says in reminiscence of his Back-way journey, opening up on the topic for the first time since arriving.
Getting survivors talk without waving their anonymity is almost next to impossible. But Jawo speaks with a view to send across a message.
‘I came through the Back Way (popular phase for getting to Europe by boat in Gambia) and after 10 months, I became a semi professional player’
‘And after one and a half season in semi-professional football, I jumped to the professional level – one of the most difficult second division leagues in the world’
‘I never played in a first division Gambian team or national side but for two and half years of hard work, I’m now a professional,’ he tells Foroyaa Sport from his residence in Italy.
Nfamara Njie is also one of those to have taken the boat journey and looks on the cusps of competing internationally anytime from now but appears sandwiched over who to run for between Gambia and hosts nation Italy.
This could be the likely fate of many talented youngsters and Gambia risks being poached of its star athletes
Glorifying the strides of these soon-to-be big stars might be given interpretation of applauding a journey that has wreaked more lives than is believed. However, this emerging tale of good from a heap of so much sorrow is one reality of an untold side of the Back-Way story.