There was confusion surrounding my family’s eligibility for resettlement from other refugees, who became jealous for no reason. It was time to prove it.
My eldest daughter Alice, who I’d first met when she was 16, got pregnant when going to school. Her mom was apparently tired of her stubbornness and could not keep her in Sierra Leone anymore. I felt lucky to see and meet this girl. She was difficult but part of our family. Her arrival prompted more questions, but God was behind us.
Fatou Barry, the refugee protection officer, called me for questioning. My answers were salient and convincing. The end product was superb, but The Gambia remained dangerous for me.
There was an urgent call for my family to return to Dakar by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We always enjoyed the trips, so we looked forward to going. And returning. We did not know why there was so much urgency added to our going to Dakar. I lied at my workplace, telling my editor how my son, Glen, had collapsed overnight and that had left us not sleeping but staying the whole night in hospital; we were referred to Dakar so we were leaving.
My boss, Pap Saine, was quite gullible for a journalist, easily manipulated. He asked us to leave in time before it was late! We left with the collection of our travel documents from Gambia Immigration. My going through immigration was somewhat more controversial than one may think. I was always given a hard time. I was there and I went to see Sergeant Ceesay, who was the focus person for refugees. He had already known me so I thought it was going to be easy.
He checked his file and said he did not find my name for traveling.
Read Augustine’s latest installment, Suspicion and Senegal Visits, or scroll down to follow his incredible journey from the start.
I then asked if he could call the protection officer who works with refugees at the UNHCR office. He wasted my time, without calling her and would not allow me to call. I was almost detained. My family waited for me while I sat in the office waiting for no reason. I was not told what I did. The sergeant could not tell me the reason for my detention and for refusing to grant my document to travel. He instead spoke to his colleagues in their language, saying I was “too much with my writing and publication about things not to tread on.”
But I spoke their language. I’d learned it and become fluent in it. It was Mandinka, and it was difficult for others I knew. I tried hard to think of how to skillfully leave the office. I eventually left by only saying I wanted to buy food and see how my family was doing as they waited for me outside. I left and reunited with my tired family, who were all sleeping in a corridor. I encouraged them and told them why I had stayed very long for no reason. We did not return for my document to travel.
My wife, Theresa, showed me the document that was sent to us stressing our being there the next day. So we left and boarded the car for Dakar. It was another story of my life. It was in the evening, the road was calm and breezes blew hard in some areas. We were dirty and hungry. We thought hard about how to escape from the border crossing on the Gambian side. I was quite determined to convince them to let us go.
I gave the old document to my wife to be presented at the checkpoint on the Gambian side at Amdalai. I mingled with the other passengers and did not come close to the police who knew me well. It was a new episode in our journey to Dakar. I helped some guys take their donkey carts across to the buffer zone and to the Senegalese side of the border. I was afraid because I knew the police may have detained me for no reason.
My family was detained, as they said they wanted to see me because my name was on the laissez passer [Editor’s note: like a temporary passport for humanitarian reasons] provided by the UNHCR through the police. It carried a lot of weight, so the police did not relent. They wanted to see if I would have joined my family. The police called the immigration office to confirm our departure. Thank God the policeman they spoke with knew me and did not know anything about my rejection at the border the day before. He clarified that I was safe; there was nothing against me or my family. So my family was let go easily.
My friend at the immigration office called me immediately to ask where I was. I told him the truth because he always saved me. He was my source for a lot of difficult news items. He told me every bit about the difficulties they were ready to impose on me.
Fatou Barry had given them a hint, I thought. The source said I should hide close to the border if I had already escaped from those on The Gambian side. They intended to waste my time but let me go later as they did to my family. My wife and kids saw me on the other side of the border but they had already stamped their document. So they had to leave me behind, as I told them to go on and I would join them soon.
My wife had our money and I had a little, only enough to eat. I paid for my onward journey to the closest destination the money could take me. It was still far from Dakar but I was forced to be there for the next day. I felt very hungry and tired, but a man must be a man.
I walked, as the day was still sunny and hot. It was already about 4:30 p.m. I walked on the dusty roads to some villages until I saw the highway leading to Dakar. It was a relief, but still no family in sight. I walked along and spoke my Gambian Wolof, a native language mostly laughable on this side of the border. I spoke it well but there was a different version in Senegal. I got a ride after 9 p.m. but it was risky. My phone would not work in Senegal because the Gambian network does not cover that end.
My ride put me close to the city, which got me lost totally.
I tried walking and searching for a good Samaritan. It did not come by easily. It was quite late, almost getting to 1 a.m. I decided to go to a nearby Catholic church, and decided to use my Catholic connections. I managed to see one and ventured inside the compound.
It was a superb experience and a bad experience all at once. I saw the caretaker, who spoke to me in French and Wolof. I responded in French and he came closer to me.
“D’ou venez vous?” [Where are you from?] was his first question, in a stern voice.
“Je suis Catholique, et je suis Sierra Leoneais, mais j’habite a Banjul.” [I am Catholic and Sierra Leonean, but I live in Banjul.]
Our conversation ensued. He wanted to know who I was looking for. I wanted to see any priest, then I could explain myself. He went in and called a white priest. After our conversation he said all the rooms were full, and he could not keep me there. I asked for a classroom to rest a little since it was just three hours left for daybreak. I was taken to a catechetical room with no chairs. So I spread on the high pavement under the blackboard. My leg was in pain due to the distance I had covered. My family kept wondering about me.
My leg was swollen in the morning, and I had no way to get medication. I went for the early morning Mass at 5:30 a.m., and afterward I asked a few people where the UNHCR office was. A lady volunteered to take me to the place, and I was there by 7 a.m., well ahead of all the workers and even my family. We were to be there at 9 a.m. I had to wait for them to come. My leg continued to bother me. And it was swollen to excess. There was no remedy.
I sat in front of the refugee protection officer’s office. Her name was Ms. Jagne. She came and met me in tears. She sent me for treatment on my knee that I’d injured years ago. I felt better after a while and waited still for my family. They came stumbling to the door, sweating profusely and disgruntled that I was missing in action. As our names were called they entered and found me ready. There was rejoicing and we managed to hug again. My daughter Mary cried.
We were then set for the problematic interview, but the children and I were asked to go outside. It was only Theresa, my wife, who remained to answer questions.
The questions were geared toward our previous statements as to how we came to The Gambia. In her explanation, she was able to talk about our daughter Alice, who had her own story. Of course she had earlier on returned to Waterloo, Sierra Leone, to see her namesake upon the end of the war. Alice was grabbed forcefully to be initiated into the female genital mutilation group, and there was a big commotion. A friend of mine, Malcolm, had to escape with her and we picked her up. She was traumatized. Our questioning was based on this because some bad people had reported to the protection officer, Fatou Barry, that we only brought our daughter to “sneak her” into America from Sierra Leone.
There were questions raised about other areas, but we could handle them with ease. Our enemies thought they had got us, but Alice’s story only made us stronger. Theresa sent me text messages from the office for any new statement she may have added to make our story appear insuperable.
She was done with her explanation and I was called in. I started off with how The Gambia immigration officials did not want us to come for the interview, that I had to hide and entered the bush and struggled to reach Dakar. It was an ordeal. The interviewers were shocked at my explanation and burst into tears as they sympathized. My questions were nevertheless not different from Theresa’s. I even had more. I explained exactly as Theresa did in her messages. I congratulated myself after it all.
We were happy at the end, and we went to eat in a restaurant to celebrate our reunion and overcoming such obstacles. UNHCR gave us money to return to The Gambia. It was enough because we had not finished the funds given to us for reaching to Dakar. We were congratulated by the interviewers for a job well done. We knew it was all over. We bought a few items and decided to return home the way we came. When we got near the Senegalese border I went the way I had come from to the other side of the Gambian border.
Upon getting inside the taxi my family alerted the driver that I was in front with my sick uncle. Just after the checkpoint, there I was standing with a man I was talking to. He was a plainclothes policeman who did not suspect anything.
We made our way home to meet many unfortunate reports about me and my family. The rumormongers had it that we were deported. Some said we had gone to America already and others said our dreams were over. They all guessed wildly, but we knew what it was.
There would be more struggle and success ahead.
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