Thousands of refugees flee to Gambia as violence flares in Senegal’s troubled Casamance region. By Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia.
Gambian armed forces stepped up border patrols in April following a resumption of violence in the southern Senegalese province of Casamance.
More than 6,000 refugees have poured into Gambia since the Senegalese army launched attacks on rebels from the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) in March.
The MFDC has been embroiled in a 40-year low-level conflict with the Senegalese state for control of the Casamance province, which is separated from the north of the country by Gambia.
The group, which has been active since 1982, received funding from former Guinea-Bissau president João Bernardo Vieira until he was overthrown in 1999.
Like Guinea-Bissau, Casamance was controlled by Portugal for several centuries, before being ceded to France in 1888.
It was subsequently incorporated into the French colony of Senegal.
In 1982, separatists initiated an armed conflict to gain independence from Senegal. And by the early 1990s a formidable insurgency had emerged.
There were regional attempts at ending the conflict in the early- and mid-2000s, however several factions of the MFDC refused to participate in the peace deal and continued fighting.
That said, the conflict had lain largely dormant until January 24 this year, when four Senegalese soldiers were killed by MFDC hardliners. Another seven Senegalese soldiers were captured and taken across the border to Gambia before being later released.
Sait Matty Jaw, executive director for the Gambia-based Center for Research and Policy Development, said the skirmishes had led to the internal displacement of Gambians along the border, as well as people in Casamance.
'The spill-over effect has already been witnessed [in Gambia]' he said, explaining that in the most recent fighting ‘there were reports of the use of mortars’ causing panic in villages close to Casamance.
The recent skirmishes are the first time the conflict has been fought so close to Gambia since violence began in 1982. Locals claim some of the fighting occurred within Gambia itself.
The situation in Gambia is reminiscent of the experiences of the so-called Mano River Union countries in the 1990s when a conflict in one country massively impacted its neighbours, sending waves of desperate refugees across the border.
In Liberia, for example, a series of civil wars started by former president Charles Taylor displaced tens of thousands of people, forcing them to find safety in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and beyond.
When those countries were themselves engulfed in military hostilities, caused in part by the instability in Liberia, refugees were seen heading back to Liberia even though the war there had not ended.
Dozens of ceasefires were signed and violated before the Liberia war ended in 2003.
Despite being the longest running conflict in the sub-region, Jaw believes Casamance’s struggle for self-determination has attracted so little regional attention because most leaders in West Africa ‘feel the conflict is too far away from them'.
He said that it will be left to the Gambians to try to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict, adding: ‘I think the effort has been to settle the conflict peacefully because at the end of the day, most of the refugees have been coming to Gambia.'
The Senegalese president, Macky Sall, meanwhile, has said achieving a ‘definitive peace' in Casamance is the priority of his second term.