Jamilatu and Fatmata

Most of the West African migrants who fail to reach Europe eventually return to their own countries, but it can be a bitter homecoming. In Sierra Leone, returnees are often rejected by relatives and friends. They’re seen as failures, and many stole from their families to pay for their journey.

Some readers will find this story disturbing

Fatmata breaks into sobs when she remembers the six months she spent in slavery as the “wife” of a Tuareg nomad who seized her in the Sahara desert.

“They call him Ahmed. He was so huge and so wicked,” she says. “He said, ‘You are a slave, you are black. You people are from hell.’ He told me when somebody has a slave, you can do whatever you want to do. Not only him. Sometimes he would tell his friend, ‘You can have a taste of anything inside my house.’ They tortured me every day.”

That was only the beginning of the horrors Fatmata, aged 28, from Freetown, Sierra Leone, experienced as she tried to cross West Africa to the Mediterranean. She eventually escaped from Ahmed, but was recaptured by traffickers who held her in their own private jail in Algeria.

After she and other migrants broke out, Fatmata, deeply traumatised, decided to abandon her dreams of a new life in Europe – and go back to where she started. She applied to an intergovernmental agency, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which pays the fares for migrants who want to return home.

Last December, she arrived back in Freetown, by bus from Mali – after nearly two years away. But there were no emotional reunions, no welcomes, no embraces. Nearly a year later, Fatmata hasn’t even seen her mother – or the daughter, now eight, she left behind.

“I was so happy to come back,” she says. “But I wish I had not.”


Find out more

Listen to Sierra Leone – the price of going home on Assignment, on the BBC World Service


When she got back, she called her brother. But his reaction terrified her. “He told me, ‘You should not even have come home. You should just die where you went, because you didn’t bring anything back home.'”

After that, she says, “I didn’t have the heart to go and see my mother.”

But her family didn’t reject her just because she was a failure. It was also because of how she funded her journey.

She stole 25 million leones – about US $2,600 at today’s exchange rate, but then worth a lot more – from her aunt. It was money her aunt had given her to buy clothes, that could then be resold as part of her trading business. Her aunt regularly trusted her in that way.

“I was only thinking how to get the money and go,” Fatmata says, though she adds that she’s not a selfish person. “If I had succeeded in going to Europe, I decided that I would triple the money, I would take good care of my aunt and my mum.”

But Fatmata’s aunt’s business never recovered from the loss of the money. And – to make things even worse – the theft has caused a rift between the aunt and her sister, Fatmata’s mother, whom she falsely accuses of being in on Fatmata’s plan.

“I’m in pain, serious pain!” her mother says, when I visit her. “The day I set eyes on Fatmata, she will end up in the police station – and I will die.”

It’s a story that’s repeated in the families of many of the 3,000 or so Sierra Leoneans who have returned in the last two years after failing to reach Europe.

At one time, relatives often raised the money to send someone, but there’s less willingness to do that now that stories of imprisonment and death along the route have multiplied. Now, many would-be migrants keep their plans secret, and take whatever money they can, sometimes even selling the title deeds to the family land.

At the headquarters of the Advocacy Network Against Illegal Migration, a voluntary group that helps returned migrants rebuild their lives, all the returnees I meet have stolen from their families.

Jamilatu, aged 21, who escaped with Fatmata from the traffickers’ prison in Algeria, took a plastic bag of cash worth $3,500 from her mother’s room when she was out of the house. The money didn’t even belong to her mother. It had all been lent to her by neighbours, as part of a microcredit scheme.

After Jamilatu left, the furious creditors besieged her mother’s house, threatening to kill her if she didn’t return the money. She was forced to flee Freetown for Bo, three hours away in the south of the country, leaving her three other children behind with their father.

“My mum doesn’t want to talk to me, because of the money,” Jamilatu says. “So since I came back, I haven’t seen her. And I want to see my mum – it’s over two years now that I’m not seeing her.”

I visit her mother, Maryatu, at her new home in Bo, and after a long conversation she says she would like to see Jamilatu again, despite the suffering she’s caused.

But when they meet, soon afterwards, it’s a short, awkward and almost silent reunion. They embrace stiffly. Then Jamilatu kneels in front of her, asking for forgiveness. Neither looks the other in the eye.

Afterwards, Jamilatu goes straight back to Freetown.

“I am the happiest woman on Earth today because I have seen my mum,” she says. But she doesn’t look happy. Her mother has told her they can’t live under the same roof again until Jamilatu has raised the money to repay the creditors.

It’s hard to see how that will be possible. Jamilatu, like Fatmata, has no job. They both depend on support from Advocacy Network Against Illegal Migration. The group was founded by Sheku Bangura, himself a returned migrant, who lobbies the Sierra Leonean government to do more for returnees – currently there’s very little official support – and tries to give practical help himself. He finds accommodation for those who are homeless, intervenes with the police if returnees get into trouble, and organises basic psychological counselling.

“I have had a lot of migrants who have mental problems,” he says. “These young people, they are on the streets, they don’t have place to sleep. It’s not really easy for them.”

One of those helping out at the Advocacy Network is 31-year-old Alimamy, who set out across the Sahara three years ago, after stealing and selling an expensive water-packaging machine belonging to his uncle.

One of his two travelling companions died of starvation in the desert. The second drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in a dinghy. Alimamy ended up in a Libyan detention camp. He was only rescued in November 2017 when the IOM began organising flights from Tripoli to West Africa for those who wanted to go home.

Emaciated and exhausted, he accepted the offer of a ticket, but he was terrified of the reception he would get. “I was thinking I should not come back to Sierra Leone, because I know my uncle has a very high temper,” he says.

Since returning, Alimamy has lived with friends. His elder brother, Sheik Umar, a former professional footballer, says: “We are hearing he is in Freetown, he is suffering. And yet he hasn’t got the guts to face any of us in the family.”

Sheik Umar says he used to be close to his brother, but if he sees him now, he will ensure he is “arrested, prosecuted and convicted”.

“If he dies in prison, I will not have any regrets, I am sure no family members will have regret, because of the shame he has put on all of us.”

He says the water-packaging business Alimamy had been entrusted to run by his uncle could have generated enough money to support the whole family.

“But he misused that opportunity and all of us are in this mess now… Wherever I go now, people taunt me. Our mother is sick, she has moved to a village. That (business) was the beginning of our hopes. But Alimamy has shattered all of that.”

Alimamy himself is angry and frustrated. “I have come back home, no impact, just like I’m zero,” he says. “The place where I am living, it’s like a hell for me. The way people look at me, I don’t feel happy. They’re looking at me like I’m not human.”

The IOM offers migrants who return voluntarily to their home countries in Africa “re-integration allowances” worth up to 1,500 euros (GBP1,270). The money comes from a 347m-euro fund financed mainly by the European Union. But the allowances aren’t paid in cash. If they were, most people would just use them to repay their relatives. So the IOM pays for goods or services that applicants can prove they need to set up a specific business.

Alimamy got an allowance to buy a motorcycle to rent out to other drivers to use as a taxi. But after just four months, one of the drivers went off with it and never came back. Alimamy himself had become a victim of theft.

As for Fatmata and Jamilatu, they never received an allowance because they returned from Mali at a time when some other Sierra Leoneans were abusing the system by catching a bus to Mali, pretending they’d returned from across the Sahara, and claiming the allowance. So everyone returning from Mali lost out, including Fatmata and Jamilatu.

Now, all three returnees take part in “awareness-raising” events organised by the Advocacy Network. They go out on the streets with placards and loudspeakers to warn other young people of the dangers of illegal migration, and urge them to stay in “sweet Sierra Leone”.

But for them, home is no longer sweet. All three are consumed by feelings of worthlessness.

Fatmata says: “I have nothing to offer, I have nothing to show. I can’t even go and see my daughter, I only see the pictures, because I have nothing to give her when I get there, so I can’t.”

Alimamy says the “stigmatisation” he suffers is forcing him to do the opposite of what he says on the streets. He wants to make another attempt to reach Europe.

“Staying here is like a hell for me,” he says. I remind him of the horrors he experienced on his first attempt, being enslaved, imprisoned, and seeing friends die.

“Well,” he says, “I have been through that, and I’m sure I could cope.”

You may also be interested in:

Azis Hanna, from Iraq, was about to pay smugglers to get his family across the English Channel in an inflatable boat. But when his friends nearly died he thought again.

READ: Crossing the Channel by boat is risky – we came by lorry

0 comments

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • "Budva da bude perspektivnije i bolje društvo"
    on 26/05/2024 at 19:06

    Potpredsjednica Demokrata i druga na izbornoj listi Dragana Kažanegra Stanišić iskoristila je danas svoje biračko pravo u Pržnu, pozivajući građane Budve da učine isto.

  • "OSI onemogućeno samostalno ostvarivanje biračkog prava"
    on 26/05/2024 at 13:53

    Niti jedno od svih 28 posmatranih biračkih mjesta u Budvi nije u potpunosti pristupačno osobama oštećenog vida što znači da na biračkom mjestu nije dostupan šablon za glasanje koji je izrađen u tamnoj boji od čvršćeg, postojanog materijala sa prorezima gdje su brojevi izbornih lista, te da etison trake nijesu pravilno postavljene, saopštio je izvršni direktor NVO Savez slijepih Crne Gore Goran Macanović.

  • "Ne odustajemo od programa Evropa Sad 2"
    on 25/05/2024 at 18:10

    PES sigurno neće povlačiti predloge čiji je idejni tvorac i autor, a neće odustajati ni od ekonomskog programa Evropa Sad 2, koji je osnova za bolji život i ekonomski prosperitet svih naših građana, poručio je poslanik Pokreta Evropa sad (PES) Darko Dragović.

  • PES neće povući iz procedure rezoluciju o Jasenovcu
    on 25/05/2024 at 17:10

    Poslanički klub PES je podržao rezoluciju o Jasenovcu i neće je povlačiti iz skupštinske procedure, kategoričan je generalni sekretar Pokreta Evropa sad Boris Pejović.

  • Reakcija Kneževića očekivana, dogovoriti brzu rekonstrukciju Vlade
    on 25/05/2024 at 15:05

    Odluka Demokratske narodne partije (DNP) o suspenziji dalje podrške Vladi Milojka Spajića do ispunjena njihovih zahtjeva za politikologa Vladmira Pavićevića je očekivana. Kao najbolji način da se izađe iz nastale situacije vidi dogovor i relativno brzu rekonstrukciju Vlade.

  • "Politički odgovorno da DNP i NSD prekinu podršku Vladi"
    on 25/05/2024 at 14:31

    Nakon izglasavanja Rezolucije o Srebrenici postalo je jasno da Pokret Evropa sad (PES) baštini sve političke prioritete Demokratske partije socijalista (DPS) i politički je odgovorno da Demokratska narodna partija (DNP) i Nova srpska demokratija (NSD) prekinu podršku Vladi i da se organizuju vanredni parlamentarni izbori, poručio je lider Pokreta za promjene (PzP) Nebojša Medojević.

  • DNP: Suspenzija podrške Vladi do ispunjenja zahtjeva
    on 25/05/2024 at 11:28

    Predsjedništvo Demokratske narodne partije (DNP) najoštrije je osudilo odluku Vlade Crne Gore da u Generalnoj Skupštini UN–a glasa za Rezoluciju o genocidu u Srebrenici i zato jednoglasno donijelo odluku o suspenziji podrške Vladi Milojka Spajića do ispunjenja zahtjeva a saopštili su i da neće podržati rekonstrukciju Vlade najavljenu za jun mjesec.

  • Nastavak podrške SAD od vitalnog značaja za stabilnost Crne Gore
    on 25/05/2024 at 10:28

    Nastavak podrške SAD od vitalnog značaja za bezbjednost i stabilnost Crne Gore, kazao je ministar pravde Andrej Milović.

  • "Spajić pokazao da će opet prevariti srazmjerne penzionere"
    on 24/05/2024 at 20:41

    Iako je najavio povećanje minimalnih penzija za srazmjerne penzionere, odbijanjem predloga poslanika Građanskog pokreta URA kojim je predviđeno povećanje i srazmjernih penzija na 450 eura, Spajić i njegova Vlada su pokazali da će opet prevariti korisnike srazmjernih penzija, kazao je šef poslaničkog kluba Građanskog pokreta URA Miloš Konatar.

  • "Vlada posvećena izgradnji ekonomskog, društvenog, političkog i kulturnog ambijenta"
    on 24/05/2024 at 20:09

    Vlada Crne Gore posvećena je izgradnji ekonomskog, društvenog, političkog i kulturnog ambijenta koji će omogućiti da se mladi ljudi koji se obrazuju u inostranstvu vrate u Crnu Goru, kako bi u u svojoj zemlji nastavili da rade i stvaraju. To je poručio ministar vanjskih poslova Filip Ivanović na panel diskusiji „Upoznajmo Evropsku uniju iz perspektive Erasmus plus korisnika“.

  • Mujović sjutra u radnoj posjeti Trebinju
    on 26/05/2024 at 20:04

    Ministar energetike i rudarstva Saša Mujović, boraviće sjutra u radnoj posjeti Trebinju, na poziv kolege iz Republike Srpske, Petra Đokića.

  • ASP: Ministarstvo energetike već dvije godine krši zakon
    on 26/05/2024 at 14:25

    Ministarstvo energetike i rudarstva već pune dvije godine krši Zakon o energetici i ne donosi Nacionalni klimatski i energetski plan, kao strateški dokument iz ove oblasti, dok zapisnici sa sjednica radne grupe zadužene za njegovu izradu pokazuju da se budući rad Termoelektrane (TE) Pljevlja prikazuje kao jedno od ključnih pitanja, jer se mora planirati postepeno ukidanje proizvodnje električne energije na ugalj, ocijenili su u NVO Akcija za socijalnu pravdu.

  • Fabrika peleta i briketa - kratko poslovanje, prazni pogoni i oštećeni radnici
    on 26/05/2024 at 09:12

    Vijest da će se u Pljevljima proizvoditi pelet i briketi od uglja optimistično je, prije nešto više od godinu, dočekana u tom gradu. Pogoni su, međutim, radili svega nekoliko mjeseci.

  • U ICT oblasti radi 9,8 miliona stručnjaka širom EU
    on 25/05/2024 at 20:50

    U oblasti informacione i komunikacione tehnologije (ICT) širom Evropske unije u prošloj godini radilo je 9,8 miliona stručnjaka, objavio je Eurostat.

  • Peranović: Ne planira se povećanje opšte stope PDV-a
    on 25/05/2024 at 14:17

    VD direktora Poreske uprave Sava Laketić naglasio je značaj računovodstveno-revizorske profesije u implementaciji poreskih propisa, poručujući da se intezivno radi na reforemi sveobuhvatnog poreskog sistema. On je to kazao na zatvaranju Simpozijuma Računovođa i revizora, koji je minula tri dana održan u Ulcinju.

  • Likvidna aktiva banaka u februaru 1,49 milijardi eura
    on 25/05/2024 at 13:19

    Likvidna aktiva banaka u februaru je iznosila 1,49 milijardi eura, što je 2,69 odsto manje nego u januaru.

  • Kvadrat stana skuplji za 630, plate veće 315 eura
    on 25/05/2024 at 11:13

    Od prvog kvartala 2019. godine do aprila ove godine prosječna tržišna cijena metra kvadratnog stana u novogradnji u Crnoj Gori porasla je za skoro 630 eura, pokazuje zvanična statistika.

  • Spajić: Trajekt Crna Gora – Italija kreće 3. jula
    on 25/05/2024 at 08:47

    Trajekt Crna Gora – Italija kreće 3. jula, najavio je premijer Milojko Spajić.

  • Reformom upisa radnog staža uštedjela bi i država i privreda
    on 25/05/2024 at 08:46

    Privredna komore Crne Gore organizovala je studijsku posjetu institucijama u Srbiji, a cilj posjete bilo je upoznavanje sa reformom upisa radnog staža koja je sprovedena u toj susjednoj državi.

  • Za 11 bivših "dakićevaca" po 2.000 eura
    on 25/05/2024 at 06:32

    Ustavni sud Crne Gore donio je Odluku kojom obavezuje Ministarstvo finansija da bivšim radnicima fabrike "Radoje Dakić" isplati po dvije hiljade eura na ime nematerijalne štete zbog povrede prava iz člana 32. Ustava i člana 6. stav 1. evropske Konvencije. To se navodi u informaciji koju je Vlada usvojila na jučerašnjoj sjednici u vezi izvršenja odluke Ustavnog suda od 24. oktobra 2023. godine.