On an unknown day in 2015, a shipwreck off the coast of Libya in the Mediterranean Sea took the life of Binta Balde’s second son.
It was days before the news travelled the more than 3,400 kilometres back to the village of Anambe Counda in the remote south of Senegal where Binta lives and where her son, Demba, had been born.
No one in the village knows the exact timeline of events. Lives here are ruled by the weather, and the passage of time is marked by the progress of two seasons: the rainy and the dry.
All anyone can say with certainty is that news of the shipwreck arrived on a Friday, the communal day of prayer for the Muslim majority in the village.
On that afternoon, grief-stricken cries pierced the normal, low din of neighbours chatting and children playing games. Binta froze. The shrieks came from the mud hut compound next to her own. Something terrible had happened.
Binta rushed out to see if she could offer help, but before she reached anyone else, Mamadou, her eldest son, blocked her path.
“There has been an accident,” he said. The neighbours’ son had drowned at sea while trying to reach Italy. But Mamadou hadn’t finished. “Demba was with him,” he said. “They were in the same boat. He died too.”
Binta dropped to the ground as if she had been shot.
Since 2014, when the UN’s migration agency, IOM, began keeping track, more than 21,500 people have died or disappeared attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Already this year, almost 300 have perished. The true tally is undoubtedly higher, as some deaths are never officially recorded.
Thousands more asylum seekers and migrants have died in the Sahara Desert and in Libya. There’s no official count, but IOM estimates the number could be twice as high as the fatalities in the Mediterranean.
Behind every person who dies while trying to reach the EU are a family and friends – an entire community left to grapple with the impact of the loss. IOM refers to these people as the invisible victims of the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean.
The impacts of the deaths on them are often material as well as emotional, and in places like Anambe Counda – far from the media and public gaze – they normally go entirely unseen.
Anambe Counda is part of the municipality of Pakour. Named after the largest village in the area, the municipality is a collection of 32 hamlets scattered across a vast plain near Senegal’s southern border with Guinea-Bissau. People in the area live on the knife-edge of poverty and are among the most likely in Senegal to migrate.
Like other young men from Pakour, Binta’s son Demba left to help provide for his family. Demba’s father died when he was young. Polygamy is still relatively common in Senegal, and he left behind Binta, a second wife, and eight children.
Growing up, Demba helped work the family’s small plot of land. But the family often had to ration food, especially between May and August when the stockpile from the previous year’s harvest ran low. During those months, having three meals a day was a luxury, and buying grain and rice on credit at an interest rate of around three percent was a major financial strain.
Kolda, the administrative district where Pakour is located, is lush and replete with arable land and abundant water, unlike other arid and semi-arid parts of Senegal. Paradoxically, it is one of the poorest regions of the country. In rural areas, up to 65 percent of people at times lack the food to meet their basic nutritional needs.
When he was 16, Demba moved to Dakar. Mamadou was already married, so it fell on Demba to leave in search of economic opportunity. Nobody in the family knows what work Demba found, but he was able to send home around $345 per month, split evenly between his mother and his father’s second wife – an impressive sum when the family’s income from the harvest was somewhere between $600 and $800 per year and Senegal’s monthly minimum wage is $94.
Binta doesn’t know why Demba decided to leave for Europe. Dakar made sense. “After the harvest, there is nothing to do [in Pakour]. This is why he went [to Dakar],” Binta said.
But Demba’s friends told TNH he wanted more than what his earnings in Dakar could bring. He had seen others who made it to Europe and were able to send more money back to their families. He wanted to build a concrete house for his mother and buy a car. But he didn’t tell Binta his plans because he was afraid she would worry and try to dissuade him. “If I had known it, I would have never allowed it,” Binta said, on the verge of tears. “I heard about the shipwrecks.”
Demba did confide in Mamadou, who tried to persuade him not to go. But cautionary tales about danger in the Mediterranean were not enough to change Demba’s mind.
When tragedy struck, news of Demba’s death eventually reached Anambe Counda by phone. A friend from a nearby village was on the same boat as Demba and the neighbour’s son. “He could save himself, but the others drowned,” Mamadou said of the neighbour.
Demba was 22 years old.
Undocumented migration from Senegal to Europe peaked between 2014 and 2017. Over 28,000 Senegalese crossed the Mediterranean during those years, before the movement was curtailed by European policies aimed at restricting migration routes to Libya and reducing departures from the North African coast. Because of the absence of concrete data, it’s impossible to say for certain how many Senegalese died during that period.
Despite the increased difficulty, the factors pushing people to migrate – especially lack of economic opportunity and disillusionment with seemingly corrupt and ineffective political leadership – haven’t gone away. In fact, over the past year, they have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result, last year saw the revival of the Atlantic maritime route from the West African coast, including Senegal, to the Spanish Canary Islands – considered to be the most dangerous sea crossing for Africans trying to reach Europe. More than 400 people are believed to have died attempting the passage in the last week of October 2020 alone.
At the beginning of March, the same set of frustrations pushing this upswing in migration also caused protesters to spill onto streets across Senegal, following the arrest of an opposition leader.
Authorities responded by cracking down, with at least eight protesters killed in the clashes, including a teenager in a village 45 minutes from Pakour in Kolda, where frustrations over years of economic marginalisation and stagnant development are particularly acute.
The Gambia, shaped like a gnarled finger, cuts through Senegal to the north of Pakour, dividing the Kolda region from the rest of the country and rendering transportation and commerce complicated and costly.
The municipality – officially home to around 12,500 people, although many births go unrecorded – is on the eastern edge of Casamance, a territory stretching across southern Senegal where a low-intensity conflict between the Senegalese government and a separatist movement has been simmering since 1982. The fighting has not touched Pakour directly, but it has stunted economic development across the area.
A two-day drive from Senegal’s capital, Dakar, the main village of Pakour has only limited access to off-grid electricity, and most of the surrounding villages have no access at all. There are no hospitals, and people travel from place to place on foot, by donkey, or, less often, on motorbikes.
Despite the remoteness and economic struggles, walking on the red, dusty roads of the villages, almost everyone has a story to tell about attempting to migrate, or about family members and friends who left for Spain, Italy, or France. Since the 1980s, thousands of young men from the area, like Demba, have left to try to make a living in other parts of Senegal, Africa, and further away, in Europe.
It is easy to spot which families have members overseas. Most inhabitants live in mud and straw huts with thatched roofs. The amount of millet, grain, and corn stockpiled on the roofs is a sign of comparative affluence: The larger the stockpile, the more likely it is that the family has a relative, or relatives, living abroad. Similarly, the few concrete homes mixed in with the huts are telltale signs of migration success stories.
These benefits of what people in the villages call la recherche – the search, in French – are readily apparent, and make a tremendous difference when nearly 80 percent of people live in poverty and many families are forced to sometimes make do with one meal per day, mostly consisting of millet.
The costs of la recherche are less easy to see.
“We do not know how many people from our municipality died on their way to Europe, in the Mediterranean, in the Sahara, or in Libya,” a local official in Pakour, who asked to remain anonymous as he didn’t have permission to speak to the media, told The New Humanitarian.
The deaths of people en route to Europe are often shrouded in ambiguity: A family doesn’t hear from a relative who has left for weeks, months, or years, and is left simply to presume the worst. Less frequently, as happened with Demba, a survivor or witness calls someone in the village to relay concrete news of a tragedy.
The bodies of those who perish are never returned. They disappear below the waves, disintegrate into the sand, or end up interred in distant cemeteries beneath a plaque bearing no name. Without a body, without definitive answers, there is nothing to make the deaths concrete.
As a result, the tangible benefits of migration continue to outweigh the abstract risks for those who want to leave, according to Seydina Mohamed L. Kane, a senior programme assistant with IOM. “They don’t see the losses,” Kane told TNH. “They don’t see the bodies.”
“I cannot count the number of funerals I have officiated of young men who drowned,” Alassane Hane, Pakour’s chief imam, told TNH.
For 25 years, Hane has been a reluctant witness to the exodus of youth from the municipality. Before they leave, young men often visit his mosque – a low, square building with blue paint peeling off its walls – asking for prayers of protection ahead of their journey. When they die, the imam shepherds their families through the mourning process.
The fact the bodies are missing doesn’t prevent the community from organising funerals to symbolically acknowledge the loss. The men gather for prayers at the mosque, and the women sit together in the common area outside their huts, shedding tears.
The time for catharsis and open expression of pain is brief. Families soon have to return to the task of scraping together a living. “It was God’s will,” people repeat stoically when asked about their loved ones who died migrating.
Still, the pain endures. In private moments, family members sigh heavily, tears streak their cheeks, their body postures break, lives stagnate. It’s hard to move on without closure, and closure is difficult to find without material evidence of loss.
Death also means there will be no financial lifeline from abroad, and it comes with additional costs. Many families sell belongings and borrow money to finance a relative’s travel to Europe. If the person dies, there’s no return on that investment. It’s also tradition for families to sacrifice animals, if they have them, and to offer the meat to fellow villagers during a funeral.
Sathio Camara, from one of Pakour’s villages, died in the Mediterranean in 2018. He was 25 years old. He, like Demba, had hoped to reach Italy and send money back to his family. His mother sold one of the family’s two cows to help finance the trip and sacrificed the second for Sathio’s funeral.
The cows had been a lifeline during difficult times. On top of their grief, Sathio’s loss has made the family even more economically insecure. “I could count on the milk [from the cows], and if we did not have anything to eat, we could sell it,” said Sathio’s mother, Salimatei Camara.
At 19, Ami has been a widow for nearly three years. Child marriage is common in Kolda – twice as common as in wealthier regions of Senegal. Like so many things in the area, the practice is connected to calculations around poverty and survival: Marrying a daughter into another family means one less person to support.
Ami’s family arranged for her to wed Sathio when he was 21 and she was only 12. She moved into Sathio’s family’s compound, and a year later, when she was 13, she gave birth to a daughter, Mariam.
For Sathio, finding work in Europe meant the opportunity to provide a better life to his parents, and to his wife and daughter. Ami only attended first grade, but dreamt of giving Mariam a full education – a goal that would require significant investment. As much as he wanted their financial circumstances to improve, Ami did not want Sathio to leave. “I wanted him to go back to school, to stay here with me,” she said.
Their final conversation was about their daughter. “The last thing he told me was not to sell the groundnuts I had harvested,” Ami remembered. “He told me to keep them and save them for Mariam so that she could eat.”
After news of Sathio’s death reached the village, Ami returned to her father’s home, but her parents are struggling to provide for her and Mariam. They are thinking of remarrying her to Sathio’s younger brother, Famora.
If a widow with small children does not have parents to help her, or they cannot afford to support her, remarrying within the deceased husband’s family is seen as the best option. It gives the children some security and ensures they remain in their father’s family. Although the widow has to agree to it, between financial strains and familial pressure, most of the time they feel they have no choice.
When asked about potentially marrying Famora, Ami shrugs. It doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility. Famora is in Italy. He migrated in 2017 and is undocumented and struggling to find consistent work to send money back home. But if things change and the marriage can take place, what option will Ami have?
Moussou Sane became a widow at 23. Her husband, Souleymane Sane, was shot and killed on the street in Libya, where violence against sub-Saharan asylum seekers and migrants is rife. “He was handsome,” Moussou said of Souleymane. “He was generous.”
Their marriage was also arranged when Moussou was 15 and Souleymane was a couple of years older. They had two children, and when Souleymane was killed, Moussou’s family couldn’t afford to take her back in with her kids so she married Souleymane’s older brother, Samba. The two always got along, but the circumstances of the marriage are strained. “You’re forced to do it, so that the children can remain in the family,” Samba said.
Samba was already married with two children. He worries about being able to provide for them all. “If you don’t have enough resources, you don’t know how to feed them,” he said.
Publicly, the constant struggle to overcome food insecurity dominates conversation. In private, when interviewed separately, both Moussou and Samba broke down in tears when talking about Souleymane, each wrapped in their own intimate grief.
Ousmane Diallo watched his friend Alpha Balde drown. “I saw his body,” Ousmane said.
Alpha (unrelated to Binta Balde) and Ousmane grew up in nearby villages and had known each other their entire lives. The two left Pakour at different times but reunited in Libya. In the spring of 2018, they boarded a rubber dinghy with dozens of other asylum seekers and migrants and set out to sea.
About 12 miles from the coast, the dinghy started to shake, causing panic among the passengers. “There was an Italian ship nearby,” Ousmane said. “We asked for their help, but they said they could not intervene.”
Instead, a patrol boat from the Libyan Coast Guard – funded and backed by Italy and the EU – arrived. The Libyans threw ropes into the water. In their panic, people started jumping off the unstable dinghy, trying to grab the ropes. Most didn’t know how to swim – including Alpha, who screamed and sank. He was 21 years old.
Ousmane wanted to jump too, but a wall of people separated him from the edge of the boat. “I could not move. This is why I survived,” he said.
It was Ousmane’s third attempt to reach Europe. He had left Pakour in 2015. When he reached Libya, he found work in a bakery and was able to send some money back to his family. But Libya was unstable and unsafe. Each time he tried to leave on a dinghy, he was caught by the Libyan Coast Guard and taken to a detention centre.
In the first centre, detainees were frequently threatened, beaten, and denied food and water. “We had to drink the same water that was used for the toilet. If you were there, you automatically got sick,” he said.
After watching Alpha drown, Ousmane was taken to another detention centre where he was haunted by thoughts of the water, screams, and the sight of his friend’s corpse. “I kept thinking about it. I was exhausted. I had to go home,” he explained. “After Libya, your heart changes.”
Ousmane decided to return to Senegal through an assisted voluntary return programme run by IOM.
Back in Pakour, he wears a pressed shirt, newer and cleaner than those worn by most men here. It speaks to the money he earned when he left the village. But he also has nightmares he can’t shake off, and has struggled to find his place in the village after returning.
He is not alone.
Between January 2017 and July 2020, more than 6,000 people returned to Senegal through IOM’s assisted voluntary return programme.
In Pakour, there are more than 150 returnees like Ousman. Many got stuck in Libya and were victims of violence and exploitation. Some were kidnapped for ransom. Others were victims of random acts of violence. Almost all are still haunted by their experiences.
Some of the returnees have started an organisation – Pakour’s Association of the Returnees – that is supposed to help the young men who end up back in the municipality find economic opportunities. The organisation gives small loans at low interest rates to its members to help them buy farming tools and seeds.
In recent years, the EU has also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into aid projects meant to address the “root causes of migration” through its Trust Fund for Africa. Senegal has received more than €170 million ($206 million) from the fund for projects, including the creation of a controversial national biometric identity database that critics suspect will be used to facilitate deportations from Europe.
Kolda, together with other regions, has received over €60 million ($73 million) in funding for projects aimed at providing technical support and vocational training to farmers, and at giving them access to credit and small loans for entrepreneurial projects.
But in Pakour, all this development funding has done little to change the material circumstances that push young men to migrate.
One project financed by the EU Trust Fund that made it to the area around Pakour in 2018 was a travelling caravan offering information about local entrepreneurship and vocational training that was also intended to inform youth about the risks of irregular migration.
In October 2018, a mobile cinema project funded by the Italian Development Agency and IOM brought a vivid documentary about the dangers migrants face en route to Europe to Pakour. The documentary was screened in 200 villages in six African countries, costing two million euros ($2.4 million). Its effect, however, was mostly to terrify the mothers of people who had already undertaken the journey, according to people in Pakour.
Pakour’s Association of the Returnees also received funding from Caritas and IOM to start a poultry farm to stimulate the local economy. But the project is struggling and has so far failed to provide anyone with an income. Around 30 men take turns working at the farm on a voluntary basis. Many association members feel discouraged and worry about the future.
“We need resources and real investment,” a representative of Pakour’s local authority told TNH. “Problems here are complex. You cannot solve them with a bunch of chickens.”
Ibrahima Balde (no relation to Binta Balde or Alpha Balde) is in his thirties and returned from Libya four years ago. He came back to Pakour after witnessing his friend get shot and killed as retribution for other migrants escaping from a construction site in the southern Libyan city of Qatrun when they realised they wouldn’t be paid for their work.
Ibrahima’s son will soon become a teenager. “I don’t want my child to go through what I had to go through, to see what I have seen,” he said.
But if things don’t improve in Pakour, Ibrahima fears his son will have little choice but to take the same risks he took and hope for a better result.
In recent years, relatively successful peacekeeping efforts in Casamance have led to better safety and stability in the area around Pakour – important ingredients for increased economic activity. A government offensive in January appears to have weakened the separatist group, but where things are heading remains to be seen. Development rates continue to lag behind other regions, and the pandemic has only made things worse for the entire country. Senegal’s growth dropped from an already low 5.3 percent in 2019 to an estimated 1.3 percent last year.
Even Mamadou, Binta’s eldest son and Demba’s brother, is tempted to try to make his way to Europe. He started the journey once, before Demba, but returned home when their father died. If it wasn’t for Demba’s death, he would already have left again.
Now, without Demba’s contribution to the family economy, Mamadou is struggling. He has a wife and two children to provide for, and he also needs to help support his siblings and his mother. They are all depending on him and he doesn’t see a future in Pakour. “It’s difficult,” he said. “We cannot earn any money here.”