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Feature Article of Saturday, 13 October 2012

Columnist: Chasant, Muntaka

My journey across West Africa 7

This is continuation of the ‘My journey across West Africa’ episodes. To read previous episodes, click on the columnist name above.

Dear readers,

The narration of my journey across West Africa continues.

This episode is in memory of the 44 Ghanaians and 10 other nationals that lost their lives in the most brutal manner in The Gambia less than a decade ago.

Journal entry – start

Date: 23/11/11
Time: 4:15PM
Location: Barra, The Gambia

You stood among the living on this riverfront
You took this path, with hope
Crossed this river, with uncertainty
This country you came, to the end of your road
This world you left, in cold-blooded
Your time in this world, very brief
When you cried, no one heard
This world you remain, hardly forgotten
You are free
Sleep well, brothers.

Journal entry – end

Commentary

I wrote the piece above to pay respect to my fallen brothers, whose fate was sealed at the very same waterfront. Sorry I'm terrible at writing poems. I wrote a copy of it on a piece of paper, and buried it under Gambia River in the most discreet manner, whilst waiting to cross into Banjul.

This stretch of Gambia River changed everything for the 44 Ghanaians and 10 other nationals that got murdered brutally under the orders of President Yayah Jammeh. In all of the different accounts of the incident, there is evidence to support that the victims were ferried across Gambia River before being massacred.

I do not know the number of the Gold Coast Regiment members that died during World War II, but in my lifetime so far, it is the first time Ghanaians in that number have lost their lives on a foreign soil in that manner.

I ask myself this: why are we too violent? In a way, we are all violent. It is our nature to be violent, selfish and greedy. We destroy what we hate, and sometimes in the process, we become what we hate. Too bad isn’t it?

Incidence like the Brufut & Kanilai massacre has occurred throughout history, as I understand, but it only becomes real and true when it happens to someone closer to you.

I left Dakar on the morning of 23/11/11 and came through Mbour, Kaolack, Sokone, Tabakouta, and finally to Karang around 3:00PM. Karang is the last town before the frontiers of Senegal and The Gambia. It was always smooth crossing Senegalese borders in spite of the hefty CFA franc I had to pay at all time. The Gambian immigration officials were friendly.

“What are you doing in Gambia on the eve of our presidential elections, Ghana man?” One of the officials inquired.

I did not know I was in Gambia on the eve of their presidential elections. Yes, on the eve of presidential elections in Yahya Jammeh’s Gambia.

“Oh no!” I responded in shock, “I did not know tomorrow is your presidential elections. I’m transiting through Gambia to Ziguinchor, in an effort to reach Guinea Bissau.”

“Well…,” he responded, “if your plans are to get to Ziguinchor, then you better hurry because the borders would be closed tomorrow morning and I do not know when it will be opened.”

I had planned to spend few days in Gambia before going south. I had wanted to visit Brufut, a western district of the country and then continue to Ghana Town. Some of the murdered Ghanaians were dumped in Brufut, which happened to be near a town called Ghana Town. I do not know whether this was a coincidence or part of the orchestration, but it did have my interest. I wanted to conduct a tour of the area since it was within easy reach from the capital.

My plans had to change due to the situation at hand. Lots of foreigners were crossing into Senegal. Whilst others were trying to escape the situation, I was heading right into it. The immigration official advised me to try to get to the southern border that evening and wait to cross into southern Senegal in the morning before it is closed. Gambia is a country inside Senegal so the geographic description can be a little confusing.

I changed a minibus to Barra, where I’m supposed to cross Gambia River into Banjul, and then continue south to Seleti; the border town. It’s less than 30km from Amdalai border area to Barra so we made it there in about 30 minutes. I met a cynic Gambian in the minibus. He was fascinated to learn I’m a Ghanaian.

“Do you anticipate change of atmosphere in the country tomorrow??” I queried him.

“I don’t know,” he responded, “I'm not going out to cue to vote. It is all nonsense.”

“Why do you say that?” I further inquired.

“Why go out to waste my time when I know what the outcome will be?” He responded, “Do you hang out with the beautiful women in the Ghana movies?”

His attention was somewhere else. He was more interested in Ghanaian women.

“No, I do not hang out with them,” I responded, “in fact, I do not even know any of the people you mentioned. Ghana is bigger so it is not likely to stumble upon people like that always.

The fellow was right; Yahya Jammeh makes a mockery of democracy. There was no point voting at all since Yahya Jammeh has the upper hand. Yahya Jammeh has ruled over Gambia for over 17 years ruthlessly and brutal. He doesn't hesitate to gun down his opponents in broad daylight. I do not know whether the man personally is a brutal person, but I do know that he has done brutal things. It is sad Gambians are unable to get rid of him.

It was such a chaos at the Barra waterfront. It takes over an hour for the vessel to travel from the other side to the Barra terminal. However, there were motorized canoes crossing passengers into Banjul. It would be difficult to find transportation to the border in the evening so waiting at Barra for the ferry meant less chance of making it to the southern border that evening. There was no option but to join a motorized canoe. It wasn’t the safest way to cross the river, but it was the only way to avoid being caught up at the terminal. In any case, the life jacket aboard the canoe could be helpful. I could also swim ashore.

It took about 45 minutes to cross the river on the motorized canoe. You can see from the photos we came close to the ferry which was on its way to Barra. Could it be the same vessel that transported the 44 Ghanaians and 10 other nationals from Barra to Banjul under the escort of the police? I kept wondering to myself. I was not sure the same vessel could still be in operation after all these years. There was no way to confirm this. It was not necessary. I went ahead to dub it ‘the Ferry of Doom’.

I finally made it to Banjul around 6:00PM and continued to find minibus to Birkama. It’s such a crowd during rush hour in Banjul. Minibus and taxis were difficult to find.

There were Christmas lights and billboards with the message: Happy Birthday Professor, Doctor…what what President Yahya Jammeh, around the city. Also, were billboards of the President with the slogan: A VOTE FOR HIM IN 2011 IS A SACRED DUTY FOR ALL GAMBIANS. The Christmas lights, I understood were put up for his birthday which was some months back, but they were still up as at that time.

To get to Seleti, I have to go through Birkama, a city south of Banjul. It’s about 40km from Banjul to Birkama. I arrived there around 9:00PM. There was no car to take me to Seleti, not even a taxi to hire. I decided to find a place to sleep in Birkama, and then head out to the border early in the morning.

The owner of the guest house was kind. His favorite lecturers at college were Ghanaians so he was excited to accommodate me. He warmed it might not be possible at all to cross the border in the morning due to the elections. He made calls to find more information about the situation at the border, but there were no response. We decided to call again early in the morning before I head out there.

It is less than 25km from Birkama to Seleti. We made calls to the border in the morning to be informed that the border has already been closed, and crossing is impossible. This presented me with a challenge. In any case, I wasn’t ready to stay in Gambia during the election. The presidential elections coincided with the upsurge in global uprising. I am sure Yahya Jammeh was ready to crush any protest or uprising that might arise during or after the elections.

Why is the president having all the borders closed? What is he up to? I kept wondering to myself. I couldn’t make it pass the border in south so I had to abandon the attempt. To stay in Gambia few more days was also not part of the option.

I decided to return to North Bank, and cross back into Senegal, that is, if the border is still opened.

I came back to Banjul to the ferry terminal. I was not alone. A lot of people were also trying to get to the border. Only one ferry was operating. The ferry was few minutes out into the river when I got to the gate. I got there late. “oh-ho!” I cried loudly. What do I do now? I wasn’t ready to use the canoe, again. To my surprise, the ferry returned back, after setting out few minutes ago. It was called back. I didn't know why but it was obviously to my advantage. I got a ticket so I quickly boarded.

I joined everyone else on the Ferry of Doom, to escape the unknown fate of Gambia. Yes, I was finally on the Ferry of Doom. There still was no way to verify whether it is the same vessel that carried the 44 Ghanaians and 10 other nationals across the river some years back. It didn’t matter to me. I remained quiet throughout the journey to Barra. You could guess why I was quiet and what I could be thinking or imagining.

Since most people aboard the ferry were also trying to cross the border, then chances are the border is still opened, and I may be able to make it into Senegal.

We arrived at the Barra terminal after nearly two hours on the river. There was a police post at the Barra waterfront. The UN investigations revealed that, it was the police at this post that intercepted and mistook the 44 Ghanaians, and other nationals as mercenaries on a mission to assassinate Yahya Jammeh. The same police post mounted a barrier and randomly intercepting people they considered to have questionable appearance. Two of the police officers pointed at me at the same time. “I hope they do not think I’m in the country on the Election Day to ferment political riots,” I was saying to myself.

Together with two Caucasian guys, they searched through my backpack thoroughly and groped me afterward. After few silly questions, they gave me a pass. They were getting ready to close the border when I got to Amdalai.

“I understand you couldn’t wait to get out of Gambia,” the immigration official I met up with the previous day comforted me, “don’t worry, I know why you are anxious. Sorry about that. Gambians are friends to Ghanaians. Hope to see you again soon.”

He was making reference to the Brufut and Kanilai massacre.

It was a relief to come into Senegal. Senegal has offered me relief on few occasions, of course, not without having to pay a hefty amount at the borders. I could not blame them. Ghana immigration officials do the same thing. They do not only extort money from non Ghanaians, but from Ghanaians, as well.

Next Episode
The journey continues same day next week.

For the photos, go to:

http://www.modernghana.com/news/423766/1/my-journey-across-west-africa-pt-7-the.html

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