Gambian refugee turns ordeal into art

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Lamin is a 34-year old Gambian refugee fighting for his asylum in Italy. He has never been to school and learned English on the streets.

One day, he found coloured pencils in a room in his refugee camp, which sparked a sudden desire to start drawing.

His art reflects the dangerous journey he made to reach Europe and, especially, the fear of drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Though the drawings are simple, they describe the hard reality of thousands of refugees and offer a unique personal perspective on an event that has often dominated news headlines in the last few years.

Lamin does not want to show his face out of fear of being recognised in his home country.

“In Gambia I was the driver of a military commander,” he explains. “Two years ago he and others attempted a coup, but they failed. It was night when he called me, suddenly, asking me to go and pick him up immediately. I obeyed and drove him to the border with Senegal. My wife then called me to tell me that the president’s guards were looking for me and that they wanted to take me to jail. What was I going to do? I could not go back, I could not return to my country, to my family. That is how my journey started. From Senegal, I reached Niger and crossed the Sahara Desert to arrive in Libya. I stayed there for almost a year, but it was too dangerous and I decided to cross the sea. Now I’m in Italy, I miss my family, of course. But how can I go back?”

Lamin has been in Italy for more than a year now, but he is still waiting for the interview to determine whether or not he can be recognised as a refugee.

The Gambia has an appalling human rights record. Forced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture are routinely practiced.

Its former leader, Yahya Jammeh, came to power in a 1994 coup and has been accused of brutally repressing any form of opposition. According to international human rights groups: “Gambian authorities routinely target voices of dissent, including journalists, human rights defenders, political opponents and critics, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.”

In December, elections were held and gave a clear victory to Adama Barrow, the candidate of the coalition of opposition parties.

After initially recognising his defeat, Jammeh suddenly rejected the results and refused to step down for several weeks, prompting African nations to send troops and forcibly remove him from power. As he left, Jammeh reportedly took US$11 million with him from state coffers.

Amid the continued uncertainty regarding the country’s future, thousands of Gambians like Lamin still live in exile.

This story has been translated from French.