By Yankuba Jallow & Mariama Marong
Barely two years after a migrant boat capsized in the high seas in Mauritania leaving 63 people dead, has one of the survivors of the incident on Wednesday, 28th April 2021, explained how his brothers lost their lives during the incident.
Testifying before Justice Ademola Bakre of the high court annexe in Banjul, Ceesay explained how he managed to escape death during the incident.
The accused persons were Sarjo Sanneh, an immigration officer stationed at Barra in North Bank, Omar Bojang, the Officer Commanding the Barra Immigration Post, Baboucar Gassama and Ansumana Touray are all immigration officers. They are facing prosecution on charges of official corruption, giving false information to a public servant and conspiracy to commit felony. The other accused person was Ousman Bahoum, who was allegedly the vessel owner.
Yaya Ceesay, 25, said he was told about the boat trip to Spain by one of his friends – Essa Sowe, who is a shopkeeper. The resident of Mandinaring said Sowe gave him Ousman Bahoum’s (the first accused person) number.
Witness Ceesay said he contacted Bahoum together with his sister inquiring about the trip and they came to an agreement that they should each pay thirty-five thousand dalasis (D35,000). He testified that the following day, he went with his sister to Barra where they met Bahoum and made payment to him with the promise that he (Bahoum) will provide them with a good boat and a machine. Ceesay said Ousman also promised to provide them with a compass for the trip.
The driver said he paid for himself and two of his brothers, whom he shared the same parents with – Sulayman and Lamin Ceesay.
He said they first planned to leave on the 25th November 2019, but the trip was cancelled by Bahoum owing to the presence of the navy in the river. He testified that Bahoum called them again on the 27 of November 2019 and asked them to come to Barra. He said he left home with his two brothers while his sister was left behind. According to the witness, all this while he never knew his sister has the intention to embark on the journey. He said his sister found them at Barra and made her payment instant before joining the boat.
He said they were locked inside a compound together with some other people by Bahoum from 6:30 pm to around 8 pm. He said Bahoum came for them and asked them to pack their belongings and follow a man to the riverside.
He testified they followed the man to the riverside.
“We left through the back gate and we ran from the compound to the riverside,” he said.
He said they stayed there for an hour and a half waiting for Bahoum, who came and asked them to line up. He told the court that Bahoum provided them with a small boat that they used to get to the main boat which was stationed inside the sea.
“It took us about 30 minutes to get to the main boat,” Ceesay said.
He said when they got to the place where it was stationed, they were asked to jump from the small boat to the main boat.
“We found the main boat already filled, but we were asked to jump over and join them. You have to struggle to jump over to the main boat all by yourself. No one will help you do that,” the witness said.
The witness said he managed to get into the main boat together with his sister and two brothers. He said there were still small boats coming with people and this was when the captain started the engine and refused to stop for the other small boats because the others could not fit in.
“Before I entered, there were almost two hundred people on board the boat,” he said.
He said a boy knocked his leg and sustained injury on his knew while jumping over from the small boat to the main boat.
He described the main boat as ‘long and big’. He said they left Ousman at the shores of the river, adding he was not with them at the time of boarding the main boat.
He said in the boat, they used to cook and food was served. However, he said not everyone there had food, adding they cooked only four times in their eight (8) day journey.
He explained that owing to the number of people in the boat, people could not move about and sat at the same place throughout the journey. He said anyone who got up won’t have his or her seat back.
He said one of the machines had a breakdown during the trip. He also testified that Bahoum did not provide the machine as promised, adding they were using gallons to discharge water from the boat.
On the 4th day, the witness said they met some fishermen and decided to ask them for direction. He said the fishermen took their compass and gave them another one, saying they were not sure that the compass Bahoum gave them was good. He said their captain left their boat and joined the fishermen’s boat for a discussion which lasted for about ten (10) minutes and then they came back.
“All this while, we were the ones using our hands to ‘remove’ the water from the boat,” Ceesay said.
He said on the fifth night, the Captain told them that they were not far from Spain, but on the sixth night, the Captain put off the engine of the boat saying he does not know the direction.
“People began quarrelling in the boat. There was a cutlass inside which was used by the Captain and the cooks, threatening to harm one another. Most of the people were sleeping at this time, but I did not sleep throughout the journey,” Ceesay said.
He adduced that one boy, who was also part of the journey, said he knew about compass and people should allow him to become the Captain. The witness said there was no controversy and he was let to proceed.
He said the new captain on the 6th night, told them that they were not far from Spain. He said they went up to a place where they saw a big white ship and the Captain told them that it belonged to the Moroccans. He added that the captain put off the engine for about 15 minutes to allow the ship to go and then started the engine again, but this time turned towards the direction they were coming from.
He testified that they met Chinese vessels on the night of their 7th day in the sea. He testified the Chinese crew refused to offer them any support.
On the 8th day, he said the Captain informed them that they were running low on fuel because they were only left with one tank.
“Some were saying let’s go back to The Gambia – some were saying let’s go to Mauritania and some were saying let’s go to Morocco.,” the witness said.
The witness said one of them pointed towards a direction that was shorter to a town and they all agreed to adhere to his advice.
“We headed for Nouâdhibou in Mauritania,” the witness said.
He said they came up to Nouâdhibou and wanted to land near a hill, but some fishermen directed them to move towards a place they pointed for landing.
“The fishermen were talking to our Captain and promised to give us a machine to replace our breakdown machine,” he said
He added: “We were heading towards the place we were directed to land, 15 meters from the desert, our boat capsized. The boat was hit by a wave,” the witness said.
He told the court that some people had life jackets while others did not have life jackets, adding his two brothers and sister had life jackets. He said he was without a life jacket because he gave it away to another person inside the boat.
He testified that after the boat capsized, each person was struggling on their own and in the end, he was fortunate to escape, while many people drowned. He said he was part of the last people to escape, adding Essa Sowe, the shopkeeper who linked him to Bahoum also escaped.
“My brothers and sister all lost their lives in the accident in Mauritania,” the witness said.
He said after the incident, the Mauritanian police took care of them by giving them food and water as well as medication. He said two Spanish came to the Mauritanian police headquarters where they were held with footages showing their boat; that they already entered the territory of Spain and then turned back.
He said while in Mauritania, they were showed photos of the recovered dead bodies for identification and he saw his brother;s (Sulayman Ceesay’s) injury on his forehead.
“The identification could not continue because we were all crying – they had to stop it,” he said.
He said the Gambian embassy in Mauritania brought them five buses which they used to come back to the Gambia together with another batch of migrants who left the Gambia and were caught by the Mauritanians in the sea. He said the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) gave them each D1350 as transport fares to get to their homes.
He said his father passed away on the 31st March 2020 leaving his mother and his siblings. Ceesay now does tailoring.
Under cross-examination by Defence Counsel Lamin K. Mboge, Ceesay said he has completed his schooling at grade 12 and also, he knew beforehand that the ‘backway’ was very perilous. Ceesay also said he embarked on the journey voluntarily. He said he found the main boat filled up and voluntarily decided to board it. However, the witness mentioned that he was encouraged by Bahoum, who said he had a good boat.
Lawyer Mboge told the witness that Bahoum was just an agent for a principal, who was in Senegal. The witness responded saying “Ousman Bahoum did not tell me that. He said he has a good boat.” Mboge referred the witness to his police statement where he stated Bahoum was an agent. The witness maintained that he paid his money to Bahoum.
“I am putting it to you that the 1st Accused Person did not take you to ‘backway’ – you paid for it,” Mboge said.
“It is because of Ousman that I went to ‘backway’,” the witness answered.
The witness while being cross-examined by Lawyers Baboucar Badjie and A.R. Bah for the 2nd and 5th accused persons said he cannot tell the territory on which the main boat was stationed. However, Lawyer A.R. Bah said it was stationed in Senegal at a place called Nyojor. The witness answered saying “I don’t know,”.
The case was adjourned to the 19th May 2021 at 10 am for the continuation of hearing.
Readers would recall Sarjo Sanneh, Omar Bojang, Baboucar Gassama and Ansumana Touray and Ousman Bahoum are standing trial before the high court in connection to the boat incident that claimed several lives in Mauritania.
Count 1, Conspiracy to commit felony contrary to section 368 of the Criminal Code. According to the particulars of the offence, Sarjo Sanneh, Omar Bojang, Babucarr Gassama and Ansumana Touray on or about the 26th November 2019 at Barra Village while in course of their duties conspired among themselves to corruptly receive seventy-five thousand dalasis (D75,000) from Ousman Bahoum through his agents for the release of his intercepted vessel purposely to convey migrants to Europe through the high seas.
Count 2, the four immigration officers were charged with Official Corruption contrary to section 86 (a) of the Criminal Code. According to the particulars of the offence, the four Immigration on the same day and year at Barra village while in the course of their duties corruptly received an amount of seventy-five thousand dalasis (D75,000) from Ousman Bahoum through his agents for the release of his intercepted vessel purposely to convey migrants to Europe via the high seas.
Count 3, Bahoum was charged with Official Corruption contrary to section 86 (a) of the Criminal Code. According to the particulars of the offence, Ousman Bahoum on or about the 26th November at Barra through his agents gave D70,000 to immigration officers for the release of his vessel purposely to convey migrants to Europe via the high seas.
Count 4, Bahoum was charged with Conveying person by water for hire in unsafe or overloaded vessel contrary to section 225 of the Criminal Code. According to the particulars of the offence, Ousman Bahoum on the 27th November 2019 at Jinack village knowingly and/or negligently caused an overloaded vessel to convey 195 migrants via high seas which capsized and resulted in the death of 63 migrants and endangered the lives of other migrants.
Count 5, Bahoum was charged with rash or negligent act causing death contrary to section 221A of the Criminal Code. According to the particulars of the offence, Ousman Bahoum on or about the 27th November 2019 at Jinack village carelessly and/or recklessly overloaded a vessel with 195 migrants to convey them to Europe through the high seas which capsized and resulted in the death of 63 migrants.
On count 6, Sarjo Sanneh was charged with making false document contrary to section 320 (a) of the Criminal Code. According to the particulars of the offence, Sanneh on or about the 26th November 2019 while in the course of his duties purportedly made statement to his superiors to believe that a suspect, Ousman Bahoum was arrested in connection with an intercepted vessel about to leave the shores to Europe via the high seas, which he knew was false.
On count 7, Sarjo Sanneh was charged with giving false information to a public servant contrary to section 14 (a) of the Criminal Code. According to the particulars of the offence, Sanneh on or about the 26th November 2019 while in the course of his duties gave information to his superior Assistant Superintendent Binta K.J Barrow that a vessel was about to leave Gambian shores to Europe via the high seas is intercepted and suspects are arrested which information he knew and believe to be false.