Musa Saidykhan still feels the ache in the scars knotting across his back when the temperature drops every winter in his two-storey home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The father of four, then the editor of the widely read Independent newspaper, fled The Gambia in 2006 after he was tortured by agents of President Yahya Jammeh’s government.
The pain, each year, brings those memories back into focus.
Saidykhan told Al Jazeera that he spent three weeks in torment: electroshocked, scored by bayonets, beaten with chains and having plastic bags forced over his head as he was held at The Gambia’s dreaded National Intelligence Agency (NIA).
During the abuse, he was accused of publishing a false story and having connections to a failed coup. He was never charged.
“My brother couldn’t understand why I had to leave the country,” Saidykhan, 42, recounted from his US home. “I had to undress for my brother so he could see [the injuries on] my back, and when he saw, he started crying.”
There are no concrete numbers on Gambians living in exile.
However, a 2013 study focusing on exiled journalists by the Doha Centre for Media Freedom and the Inter-African Network for Women, Media, Gender and Development found that 110 journalists (PDF) have been forced into exile to escape persecution since Jammeh took power in a 1994 coup.
A life of uncertainty
Jammeh, a former military officer, initially conceded defeat in the December elections to challenger Adama Barrow, an unexpected move for a leader who has held power over the subtropical nation for 22 years, after a 2002 constitutional amendment removed presidential term limits.
His abrupt about-face – claiming the elections were illegitimate and appealing to the supreme court – left thousands of Gambians both abroad and at home in uncertainty.
Saidykhan, with a still-visible scar across his cheek from the abuse, is counting down the days until he can return to his homeland, even as the regional bloc known as the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, says troops are on standby for a military intervention if Jammeh clings to power.
“I think when I touch down, I will just go and kiss the Gambian soil,” said Saidykhan, who hopes to play a role in the country’s reconciliation.
“I love my country, quite frankly, and I always want to demonstrate my love for my country,” said Saidykhan, who makes a living as a social worker, but on nights and weekends edits a Gambian news site run by expatriates. “Even if it means living in poverty, helping my people and helping them transition.”
Many exiles are like Saidykhan. They live in the United States, Europe and Senegal, but hope for a chance not only to reunite with family but also to help in the nation’s delicate rebuilding process when Jammeh’s mandate ends on January 18.
Distrust runs deep in The Gambia, where rights groups have accused the government of harassing, arresting and disappearing journalists, protesters and activists, while using strict sedition laws to silence dissent.
In December 2004, journalist Deyda Hydara was murdered in an unsolved drive-by shooting suspected by many to have been carried out by government agents.
Major crackdowns on freedom of expression followed failed coup attempts in 2006, 2009 and 2014, according to Human Rights Watch.
In April and May 2016, dozens of civilians were arrested following demonstrations calling for an election and political reform.
Meanwhile, President-elect Barrow has pledged to reconcile The Gambia. He urged those living abroad to return and vowed to release political prisoners.
A healing process
Watching the elections unfold from Bergen, Norway, social activist and women’s rights advocate Sait Matty Jaw, 31, hopes he can lead the country’s youth in reforming a justice system motivated by politics.
“A lot of the young people who could do something have left the country because of being persecuted under Jammeh,” Jaw said from the University of Bergen, where he studies on a scholarship for at-risk students.
While conducting a Gallup survey on human rights, Jaw, a former lecturer at the University of the Gambia, was arrested by the NIA in November 2014.
He was imprisoned, charged and eventually acquitted, but he fled to Dakar, Senegal, when the government appealed his case.
“There must be a healing process in the country,” said Jaw, who is well-known in the nation for his campaigns against female genital mutilation.
Mbye Njie, 35, has been unable to return to the Gambia under the current government but is passionate about creating high-paying jobs by growing the nation’s technology sector – a vow Barrow has also made.
Seeking political freedom or economic opportunity, young Gambians continue to leave the country in disproportionate numbers, often taking the treacherous “back way” through North Africa and across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Despite the country’s small size, it ranked fifth in the number of arrivals in Italy in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration (PDF).
With an economy based primarily on agriculture and tourism along The Gambia’s short Atlantic coastline, job opportunities can be scarce. In 2014, the nation had an unemployment rate of 38 percent for people between the ages of 13 and 30, according to a UN report, and around half of Gambians live in poverty, according to the World Bank.
“There are a lot of possibilities that are opening up to the people for the first time in 22 years,” said Njie, who moved to the US state of Georgia as a child, where he works for a tech start-up.
“My focus would be on trying to get that country really heavily invested in technology,” he said. “If you have education and you have the kids learning coding, there’s a potential for making it a hub for Africa. That really excites me.”
Njie has not been able to return to his country since his uncle, who shares his name, made anti-Jammeh comments on Facebook about a decade ago.
He is also the nephew of Alieu Momar Njie, chairman of The Gambia’s Independent Election Commission, who has stood by the election results and recently fled the country in fear for his safety.
“The past month has been a weird range of emotions,” Njie said. “Everything from jubilation and shock from when he actually conceded, to anger when he turned around on the concession.”
The new Gambia
In Dakar, Senegal, less than a six-hour drive from the Gambian capital Banjul, human rights journalist Sanna Camara, 35, sees a homeland on the brink of conflict.
Camara left The Gambia for Senegal, but his wife and three children remained behind.
“My concern is not only about going home, but my family is on the ground in The Gambia,” said Camara, who was arrested after writing a front-page story on a 2014 US state department report on human trafficking. Gambian women, girls and boys are frequently forced into sex work and domestic servitude, the report said, and Camara reported on the difficulties police face in investigating these crimes.
“This kind of journalism comes at a very high price,” said Camara, who faces financial hardship and hasn’t seen two of his young children for two years. “But I think it’s very important we promote this type of journalism – independent journalism – in the new Gambia. It is very crucial in the democratic process.”
Back in his snow-covered Michigan home, Musa Saidykhan hopes the coming month will bring answers to questions he began asking 10 years ago.
He remembers walking through the Gambian brush into Senegal with his six-month-pregnant wife, afraid of being spotted by security forces.
“I looked at my country, and I looked at Senegal,” Saidykhan remembers, “and I asked my questions: Why? Why am I being forced out of my country? What have I done wrong? When will I come back?”
“Those recollections came back after the election,” he added, “and I cried.”