FONI KANSALA BORDER VILLAGES IN TURMOIL

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By Nelson Manneh

The district of Foni Kansala has been bedeviled by crisis due to the armed conflict between the armed opposition Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance and Senegalese military forces.

The conflict has devastated the district, putting it in turmoil and giving rise to the deaths of at least six residents of border villages.

Deserted compound in Ballen village

And this situation has worsened this year. The Gambia is geographically surrounded by Senegal on three sides except for the West and Foni borders the Southern Casamance region of Senegal where the  MFDC is claiming independence from mainland Senegal, and this situation has caused a political impasse between the armed opposition and the Senegalese government for over forty years now.

In May 2022, the current National Assembly Member (NAM) for Foni Kansala Constituency, Almameh Gibba, first told the press that six youth sustained alleged gunshot wounds in the area, after going to a nearby forest to fetch firewood.

For MP Gibba, these youth were injured by Senegalese soldiers who embarked on a drone patrol within the area.

Hon. Almameh Gibba

“Whilst they were fetching firewood, they were shot at and all of them sustained injuries and are currently admitted at the Ndemban clinic,” he said, adding that the injured youth informed him that even the dog they went with was killed by the bullets.

Gambian Soldiers on patrol near the Casamance border

On Sunday, 20th November 2022, one Yankuba Badjie, was also allegedly hit by a military bullet, while fetching firewood in the forest of Casamance. Residents of his home-town of Jifanga and other neighbouring villages, now live in fear after recent shootings. Local residents believe that the late Yankuba was shot by “Senegalese military forces”.

“My innocent child died mysteriously. Now, I cannot do anything about it, but I put my trust in God,” Modou-Lamin Badjie, father of the deceased, told Foroyaa reporters during their visit to Foni.

Also, a CID police officer and a civilian, were arrested by Senegalese special-forces this year, close to the border, but were released following pressure from Gambians.

President Barrow’s time in office has been largely criticised for the manner he has been responding to the killing of local residents living near the border. And Yankuba’s father who has since lost hope in the current government, said despite the killings, the Senegalese government has never been held accountable for their actions.

As fear keeps rising among those residing near borders, some prefer to abandon their animals that migrate into the deep forest of Casamance due to fear of being shot dead.

One Lamin Badjie alias ‘Lang-Badjie,’ a native of Kusamai village, was also shot by a bullet after the death of Yankuba. Lamin however survived after being treated at a local hospital.

The death of Yankuba, bullet-injury of Lamin and gun fire, has left many in desperate need of help, and the conflict has forced thousands to leave their homes near the border, both in Casamance and Gambia.

Modou Gibba, Alkalo of Jifanga village, which is right at the border, said his community is not safe as of now because they hear gunshots in Casamance both during the day and at night. He said Gambian soldiers are doing their best in patrolling their community everyday despite the uncertainty of their safety.

“I was on my farm on that fateful day and I saw a drone releasing fire in the forest. Later, I saw a crowd rushing towards where the blast landed, only to see Yankuba in a pool of blood. I was shocked and devastated and now we are living in fear because we do not know who could be the next victim,” he lamented.

“We have been neglected here. We struggle on our own to survive, and we are only under the care of God. Therefore, we expect the Gambian government to protect us, because we are Gambians too,” he said.

However, despite the ongoing conflict, Gibba said they will not abandon their lands, where they earn their livelihood to survive together with families.

Senegalese Military Takes Stricter Security Measures In Casamance:

The unprecedented upsurge in the Casamance conflict is said to happen when four of its soldiers were killed in an ambush back in February 2022, by the MFDC separatist forces, who abducted seven other Senegalese soldiers but later released them.  Since that time, the Senegalese military took stricter security measures in the southern Senegalese region, with Senegalese soldiers launching military raids on the rebels which prompted Gambian border residents in Foni to vacate their homes.

Meanwhile, on 13th March 2022, the Senegalese military launched a major raid on the MFDC separatists which led to loss of lives and properties in Foni.

Mbassi Sanneh, a staff working for the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA), said threats during the 2022 military raid in Casamance mentally traumatised a 10-year-old boy residing in a Gambian community in Foni.

Sanneh documented the negative impact of the crisis in the affected communities in Foni and how a decision can influence positive actions and interventions.

“There have been incidents of insurgency and clashes of forces on both sides. This border is so porous and uncontrollable that the MFDC separatists move in and out of the Gambia, causing security threats,” she said.

Sanneh disclosed that the 2022 incidents between the Senegalese Army and the Separatist Movement resulted in casualties on both sides and people have been internally displaced in The Gambia as well.

The NDMA official said women, girls, children and the elderly are the most affected disproportionately by men, in the Foni incident.

She said these groups are confronted with the effects of human-induced disasters and exposed to hazards and risks.

“A total of 13,920 people have been affected with a household of 1,740 since the outbreak of the crisis as of April 2022. Out of this, 5,156 or 33% are male-headed households and 10,467 women or 67%, are female-headed households,” she stated.

Again in December 2022, deaths have occurred and these unfortunately have all been allegedly attributed to a “Senegalese military drone” that frequently patrols the borders of Casamance region in southern Senegal and Foni district in the Gambia, forcing residents to live in fear of their lives and their loved ones.

Many have abandoned their cattle and small ruminants that have fled to the forest of Casamance, because they do not want to be shot by this “Senegalese military drone” that is killing their youth, without any reaction from the government of the Gambia.

On Saturday, 10th December 2022, Demba Colley, Alagie Manga and Ebrima Colley were also allegedly gunned down by a military bullet from an alleged drone, in a forest near the village of Karunorr.

As Demba Colley and Ebrima Colley were buried in Karunorr village on Monday 13th December 2022, Alagie Manga was also buried the same day in Dobong village in Foni Kansala district.  

Photo of abandoned compound in Foni during Senegalese Military raid

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in a press statement expressed concern over the reported shooting of four young persons by Senegalese forces at the Gambia-Casamance border.

“The Human Rights Commission is concerned by the alleged unlawful shooting of four youth along the Gambia-Casamance border by Senegalese soldiers or their drones, which has led to the death of three young people and the serious injury of one who is battling for his life at Ndemban Clinic,” the Commission stated.

The Commission called on the government to investigate the alleged shootings and take actions to ensure the protection of lives and property in border villages within the Gambia. The NHRC further encouraged the Government to explore diplomatic measures through established rules of engagement under agreed protocols and international law, to seek justice for the deceased.

On the 2nd of November 2022, the Gambia government responded to issues raised by the representatives of Foni, in a press conference held in Foni.

The statement that was issued by the government stated that there has been a litany of complaints that Foni MPs raised concerning the presence of ECOWAS forces in Foni; investigations into the deaths of certain individuals particularly the death of Yankuba Badjie and so on.

The statement emphasised that the security and territorial integrity of the country were paramount. It added that the presence of ECOMIG forces across the country with the Foni Region included, was necessitated by genuine security concerns exacerbated by a porous southern border. It further stated that the ECOMIG have been instrumental in maintaining peace and security as the Gambia navigates its very sensitive transition.

The government statement said it takes the loss of all human life seriously and is committed to carrying out all necessary investigations to ascertaining their circumstances. Regarding reports of the shooting of Yankuba Badjie, the statement noted that government investigations confirmed that Mr Badjie died across the border in Casamance; adding that he was non-Gambian and a registered refugee with the UNHCR and had resided at Gifanga village. The National Assembly Member for the Constituency, Hon. Gibba however claims that they are not registered as refugees but as a displaced person.

Nonetheless, the Government statement indicates that Gambian authorities are closely working with their Senegalese counterparts regarding the cases.

In a related development, The Gambia government confirmed that three deaths happened in Foni. The victims are Demba Colley, age 23, Alagie Manga, age 23 and Ebrima Colley, age, 20. According to the statement, preliminary investigations also revealed that all the deceased were non-Gambians but had registered with the UNHCR’s Banjul Office as refugees in The Gambia. A fourth victim, Sulayman Kolley was said to be injured and hospitalised at a health facility. The Gambia government said it wishes to clarify that all the three men died in the Senegalese Region of Casamance and not within Gambian territory as was alleged.

However, the National Assembly Member for Foni Kansala Constituency Almamy Gibba, said the young people who have been gunned down in Karunorr village, were not refugees from Casamance.

“I debunk the government statement regarding the citizenship of the gunshot victims in Karunorr. I want the whole Gambia to know that these victims were Gambians,” he said.

The Alkalo of Karunorr village Modou Lamin Colley, told Foroyaa that the three victims are citizens, saying that they were all born and raised up in his village.

Foroyaa is investigating this matter.

Life in Foni, particularly in border villages, is characterized by misery, hardship and fear. Fear rules the waves.

The youth have no other sources of income during the dry season except fetching firewood and burning charcoal to earn an income.

“If the Senegalese military drones continue to kill our youths how are we going to survive?” one Lamin Colley asked this reporter.

The people of Foni attributed their poor harvest this year to the late preparation before the rainy season. They said in April and May this year the borders were not stable due to raids by the Senegalese military in Casamance.

“If our harvests are poor and we are exempted from going to the forest to fetch firewood, how are we going to survive?” Mr Colley questioned.

The lives of Foni residents in border villages are in danger; their livelihoods are precarious; fear tortures them daily and hourly; yet their calls for intervention go unheeded. Will their cries continue to fall on deaf ears? The future will tell.

Needless to say, it is the responsibility for the government to take charge of the wellbeing of the people.