New York Times
By DIONNE SEARCEY and JAIME YAYA BARRY
June 22, 2017
TONGO, Senegal — Amadou Anne, the oldest son, tried first.
“If you have a way to get there, maybe you should try it,” his father told him.
The journey required crossing thousands of miles of ruthless desert and sea to reach Europe. Months passed with no news. And then the phone call.
Friends in France spotted a list of drowned migrants. Mr. Anne’s name was on it.
“I was standing right there, and I cried,” his mother, Salmata Boullo Diallo, said near the family compound in a vast expanse of fallow peanut fields in this remote part of Senegal.
The loss did not end there. Mr. Anne’s younger brother Gibbe also tried to reach Italy. He, too, died at sea.
Their fates, sealed in journeys nearly two years ago, matched those of so many in this region, where young men often fall into three unforgiving categories: the ones who have made it to Europe, the ones who were blocked or deported along the way and the ones who died trying.
“If they would have made it, it really would have changed things for us,” Ms. Diallo said.
The same sea that swallowed the Anne brothers in their journeys on the Mediterranean has already claimed the lives of more than 2,100 migrants and refugees this year. Ninety-five percent of those deaths have occurred on the so-called central route between Libya and Italy, a passage used chiefly by sub-Saharan Africans that the International Organization for Migration calls “the deadliest route migrants ply anywhere on Earth.”
The Anne family compound and Tongo village in the Tambacounda region of Senegal. Xaume Olleros for The New York Times
Yet more people keep trying. As of Wednesday, nearly 72,000 migrants had made it to the shores of Italy — a 28 percent increase compared with the same period last year, according to the migration organization.
The stormy sea is the last in a deadly series of obstacles to Europe. For migrants like the Anne brothers, the journey begins in packed buses that may topple over on bad roads patrolled by thieves. If they make it through the days-long desert crossing to Libya, the migrants are sometimes beaten, detained for weeks by smugglers and shaken down for yet more cash.
Late last month, 44 migrants, including children, died in the Sahara after their vehicle broke down and they ran out of water. More recently, a dinghy carrying 130 people capsized after rival smugglers stole the engine. Only four people aboard were rescued.
“Human smugglers will go to any extent to exploit desperate refugees and migrants,” said Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency. “These shocking deaths are part of the bigger picture of exploitation.”
The stream of migrants from this region — from Nigeria, Guinea, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Mali — is growing. In 2016, the number of Senegalese making the journey nearly doubled from the year before.
Senegal is one of the more developed countries in West Africa. In the capital, Dakar, tall buildings rise downtown and seaside restaurants charge New York prices for plates of the local catch. Recent offshore oil and gas discoveries offer hopes for transforming the economy, luring international companies like Total to sign exploration agreements.
The Annes’ mother in the hut formerly used by Amadou. “If they would have made it, it really would have changed things for us,” she said. Xaume Olleros for The New York Times
Yet almost 47 percent of the Senegalese population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank. In rural areas, almost two-thirds of residents are considered poor.
The Anne brothers’ sparsely populated region is among the poorest in Senegal. At least 110 people from here have died along the migrant route since 2015, local officials said. This area lost 17 of its men in a single episode, a shipwreck in April 2015 that killed more than 800 people.
“We have no machinery to cultivate the land, no rain and now no young people,” said Alassane Diallo, mayor of the nearby village of Koussan.
In this sandy landscape, with its blistering heat and fat baobab trees, the chief means of survival is farming. The kind of life it provides is on full display in the small compounds of one-room mud homes: a mini-flock of two or three sheep, a piece of foam to soften a bed of sticks, a few changes of clothing, plastic flip-flops.
But some of the compounds strung along the bumpy dirt roads here serve as siren calls to Europe: concrete homes instead of mud, an automobile parked outside, a satellite television dish poking from the ground, an iPhone.
All of it comes from money sent home from Europe — from the migrants who made it. They are local heroes, the envy of everyone.
Samba Issa Anne, left, prayed with two neighbors outside the Anne family compound. Xaume Olleros for The New York Times
“A young Senegalese is always covered with shame and guilt when he sees his own mother trying to make ends meet without being able to support and relieve his parents,” said Ousmane Sene, director of the West African Research Center in Dakar.
Some parents and spouses push their sons to make the trip. Village life is so isolated that often they are unaware of the dangers of the voyage. The pressure to try can be so intense that some men who fail never return home. Ashamed, they would rather have their families think they are dead.
Moussa Kebbe, who lives in the area, tried making the journey in 2014. He sold his home to finance the trip, which included 16 days in the desert with so little water that he was forced to drink his own urine. Four people in his vehicle died from thirst, he said.
Once Mr. Kebbe arrived in Libya, he worked in construction and cleaned toilets to try to earn enough money to pay for the boat to Italy. Libyan immigration officials threw him in jail for three months before he was deported.
He came back home empty-handed, worse off than when he started. Mr. Kebbe explained to his wife what had happened. She cried and pleaded with him to try again.
“It’s a suicide mission,” said Ousmane Thiam, who also failed to reach Europe.
In the Anne family’s tiny compound, the side-by-side huts of Amadou and his brother Gibbe are still empty, a broken bicycle resting against the mud wall in one.
Halimata and Kadidia Anne, sisters of the Anne men who lost their lives, prepared lunch at the family compound. Xaume Olleros for The New York Times
No one realized the journey would be so dangerous, said the men’s mother, Ms. Diallo.
“We’d only heard success stories,” she said, shaking her head.
Before he left, Amadou, 36, told his brother to wait. But Gibbe, 28, working in Dakar as a brick maker, thought he could earn more in Europe. Anxious to follow his brother, he took off on his own, even before he heard of Amadou’s fate.
“We had no idea where he was,” Ms. Diallo said.
Gibbe’s name showed up on a list of dead migrants a few weeks after his brother’s did.
The Anne family relied on other sons to help financially. One of them had been living in Gabon, where he had found work. A few months ago, he came to the village. He suddenly fell ill and died, of natural causes, the family said.
Another son, Adama Anne, had planned to leave for Europe or somewhere else promising, his family said.
But he, too, had been ill. A few weeks ago, while The New York Times was interviewing the family in the village, Adama began coughing violently. His father tried to help him walk back to his hut, but the man collapsed in his father’s arms and went cold.
Children outside the Anne family compound. Some families push their sons to make the trip to Europe, unaware of the dangers of the voyage. Xaume Olleros for The New York Times
“He’s gone,” his father howled. “He’s finally gone.”
Now, it is up to Arouna Anne, the last male in the family, to make a better life for his parents and the children his dead brothers left behind.
He is just 14 years old.
Arouna knew he couldn’t support his family living in their tiny village. He left for a town a few hours to the east.
He arrived on a Wednesday, market day, carrying only a change of clothes and the equivalent of $33. When darkness fell, he spotted children reading Arabic outside a big house. He went inside and asked for help from the teacher. Arouna now lives there with three other boys, sleeping on a mattress made of rice stalks.
He thinks about his brothers often — about Amadou, the strict one, always trying to discipline him, and Gibbe, the jokester, always playing pranks.
Once, Arouna accompanied Gibbe to the fields. He turned his back and Gibbe disappeared, hiding in a tree. He made baboon noises and pounced on Arouna, who was terrified and ran away.
“Everyone laughed when we told them what happened,” Arouna said, giggling so hard he could barely continue talking.
Arouna hasn’t seen his parents for six months. He sends a bit of money to them from time to time. It’s not enough.
“I am the only remaining son now,” he said. “I have to support the family.”
Arouna knows well the dangers of the trip to Europe. One of his friends from home also tried the trip not long ago and died in Libya.
Eventually, Arouna says, he will go to Gabon or Congo, to work in the mines.
“It’s not risky there like Libya,” he said.
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