By Edward McAllister and Emma Farge
Fatty Ousman watched all night as the results of Gambia’s presidential election last week trickled out on social media. Stunned and elated by the defeat of veteran leader Yahya Jammeh, he believes it is finally safe to return home.
Ousman is one of thousands of Gambians who left because of Jammeh’s authoritarian 22-year rule, or sought work abroad as the economy sagged. Now, many are reevaluating after Adama Barrow beat Jammeh in the Dec. 1 election, promising to end repression and boost the economy.
For Ousman it will be an arduous journey – he is now living more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km) away in a migrant centre in the Italian Alps where he has spent 18 months seeking political asylum. He fled Gambia across the Sahara and the Mediterranean in 2015 after being threatened by Jammeh’s security forces.
“I am no longer scared to go back. I felt afraid even in Italy,” said Ousman. “Now I can go and see my family.”
Not all Gambians will rush home. Jobs in the tiny West African nation, famed for its beaches, are scarce and remittances make up more than a fifth of national output.
Nevertheless, the election outcome marks a joyous turnaround for Gambian families torn apart by exile.
Stocky former police officer Ebrima Sanneh, 46, left for neighbouring Senegal in 2013 after a dispute with the police he said could have ended in jail time. He has since relied on family handouts to pay rent for the small room he shares with four others in Dakar.
Sanneh plans to make the six-hour drive home next month, once Jammeh is gone, to see the three children he has not seen since 2013. He pictures walking into his house and out into the garden to see the mango tree he planted just before leaving.
“I can’t sleep because of joy,” said Sanneh, who wept when Jammeh conceded defeat last Friday. “I have been liberated.”
In Gambia’s capital Banjul, family members anticipate long-awaited reunions. Gibril Jaw, 40, looks forward to the return of his brother, a political journalist in exile since 1995.
“I talked to him and told him to come back. If Barrow is in the statehouse, I look forward to that,” he said.
Potential returnees remain cautious, however, given the state of the economy. Stuck in Italy, Ousman is realistic about his prospects.
“Even without Jammeh, it will be difficult,” he said.