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Gambia’s coastal town shocked by boat wreck in Mauritania

Over 60 people killed, mostly Gambians, after boat capsized off Mauritania coast on Dec. 4, says UN Migration Agency

Mustapha K Darboe   | 11.12.2019
Gambia’s coastal town shocked by boat wreck in Mauritania

BANJUL, Gambia

Samba Ceesay, a 56-year-old seaman, remembers his son with a smile.

Working on a Taiwanese-owned trawler fishing in Gambian waters, Samba barely stays at home for a week. The last time he saw his son Yunusa Ceesay, was about four months ago.

On Dec. 4, when he got the news that his son has died, he was in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

Yunusa, 20, was among 195 young Gambians in a boat which capsized off the coast of Mauritania, killing 63 and leaving 41 of the migrants still missing.

"When I heard the news, it felt like the world has come to an end. I wish I could have died to save him," said Samba.

As he speaks, tears stream down the face of Jainaba Touray, Yunusa's sister who lives in Banjul, 7 miles (11 kilometers) away from Barra -- which is located in the Lower Niumi district of the country.

Like Jainaba, families who have lost ones at sea receive condolences from those who show solidarity.

Barra, a community of about 6,000 people, has lost at least 15 people, some of them already confirmed dead. Its neighboring northwestern Essau town and other satellite communities also lost as much.

Samba, a father of seven, has arrived in Gambia on Dec. 5, a day after the death of his son was announced. He sat before his two-bedroom house, on a wooden chair, to talk about his son.

Samba is a seaman, a job he has done for 30 years, but he could barely earn enough for his living.

He lives in a 15 by 10 meters (49 by 32 feet) compound fenced with a corrugated iron sheet without a compound door. His building has two separate rooms for him, his wife and seven kids. The house has two wooden doors.

His son was a good football player who is currently at secondary school, he said, adding: "I never wanted him to go, but kids are too ambitious these days." His football coach in Barra, Sheikh Omar Sowe, agreed that he was a good player.

Samba appears to have a very strong emotional connection to his son. He calls him by his nick name Energy, as do Yunusa’s friends.

Sheikh Sarr, a close friend of Yunusa, said he is devastated by Yunusa’s death.

The last time Sheikh saw Yunusa was as he was walking to the boat that would take him to his grave. "One of our friends got him mineral water," he recalled.

"Yunusa wanted to be a professional footballer. He told me he wanted to play for Barcelona," he said. Sheikh paused and looked down, saying that the two friends shared a lot.

"It's sad," he said. "He just wanted a change in his life so that he could help his mother."

Rising despair

Since Gambia’s political change in 2017, which dethroned former leader Yahya Jammeh, youth migration to Europe through the high seas has taken a downward trend. But recent figures show that it is rising again.

A 2018 study by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network that conducts public attitude survey in Africa, said at least five in every 10 Gambian (57%) considered emigrating to another country, largely in search of employment.

According to national statistics, four in every 10 Gambian youth is unemployed. But the migration crisis did not consume only the unemployed.

Sulayman Manjang, a 27-year-old serving member of the Gambia Fire and Rescue Services, also died in the boat wreck.

According to Sheikh Sarr and several other sources in Barra, the capsized boat was the third to have left the community. Sheikh said the first one which took off about two months ago entered Spain while the second was intercepted by the Moroccans.

On Friday, barely two days after the deadly boat accident, the Mauritanian authorities intercepted a vessel carrying 190 Gambian migrants also headed for Spain, Gambia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed on Monday.

The 79 people rescued from the capsized boat and the 190 migrants from the intercepted boat were both returned to Gambia on Monday, ministry spokesperson Saikou Ceesay confirmed. Their return was assisted by International Organization for Migration.

The sinking off Mauritania is the largest known loss of life along the so-called western migration route this year, and the sixth deadliest migrant capsize globally, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Mourning, anger

Barra and Essau are among the communities in mourning. One of the mourners is a 49-year-old Kebba Bojang. In Kebba's house, on Dec. 8, were dozens of mourners.

He sat on a sofa in his parlour with his wife Katty Joh.

Came few minutes after Kebba took his seat, was a 7-year-old boy, son of Jojo Bojang. Jojo, daughter of Kebba and Katy, was among the 63 dead at the sea. "That is Mahmoud Jahateh, son of Jojo," said Katty, pointing at the boy.

Jojo was a waitress at Dreams, a club along Gambia’s busy Senegambia strip, a tourist area. She played a vital part of the upkeep of her family, said Kebba.

Jojo took the boat trip without the knowledge of her parents. But Kebba is angry that the boat left without any notice by the security forces.

The dead were buried in Mauritania and the Gambian government was also late to even issue a statement about the incident.

Gambian President Adama Barrow issued a statement about the boat accident but that came four days after the incident on Dec. 4.

Meanwhile, no government official visited the communities that lost dozens of their loved ones.

"I'm father of a dead person but I don’t see any authority who spoke to us, I'm very upset," said Bojang.

Bojang said their community had to send two people to Mauritania to get a clearer picture of what happened.

"The village development chairman sent two people to Mauritania on Dec. 5 and when they arrived, they confirmed the death and the survivors. Since then, they have been the people updating us about the incident," said Bojang.

In the address of the Gambian leader on Dec. 8, he promised that "the culprits will be prosecuted according to law".

On Tuesday, Gambian police announced the establishment of a task force of investigators from the police, navy and immigration to probe who the smugglers were, how they left the shores of the country and whether the police at Barra were aware of their leaving as alleged.

Meanwhile, as the families wait for an investigation, Ousman Bahoum, owner of the boat, has made away with over $130,000. Each person in the boat, according to Sheikh, has paid about $700.

West Africa concentrates the highest number of intraregional migrants and, to a lesser extent, migrants moving towards Northern Africa and Europe, according to the UN Migration Agency.

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