Exactly one week after being sworn into office at the country’s embassy in neighbouring Dakar, Senegal, President of The Gambia, Adama Barrow, on Thursday returned to a rousing welcome in Banjul, his country’s capital which he fled in the wake of the lingering fears over his safety while his predecessor, Yahya Jammeh refused to step down after being defeated at the December 1, 2016 election.
In a lone tweet on Thursday evening, President Barrow wrote: “I am finally reunited with my fellow Gambians.”
International news agencies had a day earlier reported quoted Barrow’s aid,e Amie Bojang, as saying the new nation’s first democratically elected President “is leaving tomorrow and will arrive in Banjul at around 4 pm [1600 GMT].”
Back home, Barrow’s priority would be “putting into place the pillars of reform and human rights,” adding “people are very happy and it’s elating”.
Barrow will be staying at his own home until further notice while State House, Jammeh’s former seat of power, is assessed for potential risks.
His first job is to deal with an internal crisis after it emerged his choice of vice president, Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, may be too old, constitutionally, for the role, according to reports.
“Not only the government has to change but all the Gambian people have to change, working hand in hand, and change our attitude,” a Gambian who declined to give his name, told the AFP news agency.
Meanwhile, the United Nation’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR), on Tuesday night reported the return of normal life to The Gambia, following last Saturday’s forceful ouster of former President Jammeh by a collaboration of international agencies, following his refusal to accept defeat in a poll held last December.
According to UNHCR, schools and shops in the capital Banjul are beginning to open for daily activities, even as thousands of displaced nationals return from neighbouring Senegal, where they had fled in the midst of uncertainty while the intense negotiations lasted.
In the ensuing regional crisis, over 76,000 people sought shelter in Senegal according Senegalese authorities.
“We just did not know how things would turn out. Thank God, the blood bath has been avoided,” 42-year-old John said, echoing the thoughts of many who had feared the situation in the Gambia could tip into violence. Like many he praised host families for their warm welcome in Senegal.
“It is over, we are going back home.”
“People have opened their homes for us, we stayed with a family we did not even know. They have been very, very nice.”
Authorities in the Gambia are sending buses to border points to help the displaced return home.
John and his wife and children prepared to take one to West Field Junction, in the Serrekunda region. From there, they planned to hire a car or take a taxi.
On Saturday, the agency continued, 530 people crossed back through the Selety border crossing in Senegal’s Ziguinchor region. On Sunday, the number grew to over 3,700, with as many again on Monday, some heading home in private cars, on motorcycles, or hoping to board a bus. Others have been going back to the Gambia through informal crossings on the northern and southern borders.
Some returning by boat to Banjul, the Gambian capital, are arriving on crowded ferries which are reportedly old and unsafe. During the crisis, people fled or hid in their homes, turning Banjul into a ghost town. A team from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Banjul says that some normalcy has begun to return, as some schools and shops re-open.
During the political impasse, thousands of displaced people from the Gambia have been hosted by families in Senegal. Many, like Mariama* – who is hosting up to 15 people in her home, including a cousin and her baby – have struggled to feed them.
“People have opened their homes for us. We stayed with a family we did not even know.”
“I used to cook one kilo of rice a day for my own family,” said Mariama. “Now, with the new people I am hosting in my home, I cook three to four kilos a day. I had to dig into our food resources to feed everyone. It is okay – we need to help them – but now, in order to have extra money to buy rice, I prepare and sell breakfasts to people in my neighbourhood.”
To meet the needs of both displaced people and their hosts, the Senegalese government has been quick to act. The authorities have delivered and distributed several tons of food to the displaced and host families – including rice, oil and sugar.
Forty tons of rice arrived in Ziguinchor region in last week and distribution has started in several villages hosting displaced people. In addition to food aid, the government is also providing mattresses, matts, sheets, blankets, and soap to those in need.
UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies and NGOs continue to stand ready to help the Senegalese authorities to assist the displaced, as needed. Together, UN teams continue to monitor the border.
An estimated 3,500 people also sought safety in Guinea-Bissau in the past 10 days. The Gambian embassy there has asked for UNHCR’ s assistance to help those people return home.