Refugees for a second time: How the Gambian crisis reawakened the trauma of a Sierra Leonean family

Published: 25 January 2017 8:31 CET

By Moustapha Diallo, IFRC

Hasinatu Camara’s baby boy is crying incessantly. He is certainly hungry. Camara frantically rummages through her skilfully tied up pieces of luggage, to reach for her baby’s food.


Camara is one of the 95 refugees staying in a hall, at the premises of the Olympic swimming pool, in Dakar, Senegal.


Together with her husband, Hakim, and her son, she fled The Gambia due uncertainty and a potential military intervention, following the recent post-electoral political crisis—in the West African country.


With tension mounting in The Gambia, they left their home in Serekunda, in the South-West of Banjul, on 17 January 2017.


For Camara and her husband, it was not their first time to become refugees. Originally from Sierra Leone, they fled to The Gambia following a civil war in their native country.


But in unfortunate turn of fate, their second home has also been enveloped in a political crisis.


This precarious environment, and a traumatic sense of déjà-vu, made them decide to flee. “We originally came from Sierra Leone where we had already witnessed a civil war,” explains Hakim; “we did not want to experience such a situation again.”


Between 1991 and 2002 Sierra Leone experienced a civil war which left over 50,000 people dead.


During that period, at the age of 15, Hakim lost almost all his family members, including his mother, father, and two sisters. His wife Hasinatu was a little girl. She also lost her parents.


Hakim has worked very hard to rebuild his life in The Gambia where he sought refuge in 1999. Today, he has fled again leaving behind almost everything.


“I did not want to take any risk. That is why I preferred to come to a safer place such as Dakar, which is far from the Gambian border,” says Hakim.


They arrived in Dakar without enough money. Hakim and his little family slept out in the open for three days—exposed to mosquitoes and cold temperatures at night—before being settled in the premises of the Olympic swimming pool of Dakar.


“It was very difficult as we were struggling to get food,” he admits.


Almost all the 95 refugees that were hosted in the premises of the Olympic swimming pool are originally from Sierra Leone. They share a common, if tragic, past. Their children are Gambians and most of the adults acquired Gambian citizenship after more than seventeen years living in their adoptive country.


Traumatised by what they had experienced back in Sierra Leone, today, they all hope for a peaceful transition of power in The Gambia.  


Thanks to the officials of the Senegalese government and its partners, including the Red Cross, these refugees have been receiving assistance including accommodation, food, water, clothes and health care, among others.


In Karang, one of the main Senegalese towns bordering The Gambia, which hosted thousands of refugees, the Senegalese Red Cross mobilised its volunteers, provided food and relief items to the most vulnerables. Red Cross volunteers also handled the registration of fleeing people and assisted elderly and sick people in getting to the health facilities.


According to UNHCR, about 45,000 people fled to Senegal. As the situation slowly returns to normal, some of these displaced people have started to return to The Gambia. Most of them will need support to get back on their feet.  And, hopefully, Camara, Hakim and their son, can now continue to rebuild their lives in The Gambia, their new home.