Fanta Darboe Jawara is greeted by family and friends at Dulles International Airport as she returns home to the United States after being imprisoned in Gambia. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

After missing her daughter’s prom, awards ceremonies, senior night with the basketball team, the cheerleading competition, countless times the girls needed advice and 318 family dinners, mom finally came home.

Fanta Darboe Jawara, 46, suburban Maryland mother of two, walked out of one of Africa’s most notorious prisons and into the arms of her family at Dulles International Airport on Thursday night, after nearly a year of hell.

“Every day, you wake up there with fear,” Jawara said. “The mental torture. The physical abuse. One twin bed for two people. One mosquito net for four people. No sanitation. If it was three more months, this would be a different story. I don’t think I would’ve survived.”

But on Friday morning in Frederick, she slept until 10 a.m., woke up in a king bed to hot coffee, a hot shower and her husband and daughters.

“I won’t take anything for granted,” she said, preparing for a weekend of family visits and reunions.

Fanta Darboe Jawara, center, is greeted by her daughters Sarah, 13, left, and Aminata, 18. Jawara missed 318 family dinners while she was held in one of West Africa’s most notorious prisons. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

Jawara is a nurse. A volunteer at school who never missed a cheerleading competition or a Muffins and Moms gathering.

Then she took part in a time-honored tradition for American immigrants — she went back home to visit the family she left behind — and lived every immigrant’s nightmare. She was arrested by the oppressive government she left behind, beaten and taken to one of Africa’s most notorious prisons.

This was last April, at the end of her three-week trip to the tiny West African country of Gambia to attend a family reunion. It was her first time back in 11 years.

She’d gone to a bank in the capital of Banjul two days before her departure when a street protest rolled by, and she was caught in a police sweep of all the demonstrators.

She denied being part of the protests. She asked to be released. She tried to get in touch with her daughters. But nothing.

She was sentenced to three years in Mile 2 prison.

“A dungeon,” her uncle, Momodou Darboe, said as he hugged her tight at the airport.


The night their mom was arrested, Aminata Jawara, 18, was at a cast party for her high school’s production of “Pajama Party.” Her sister, Sarah, 13, called to tell her. “She’s not coming home,” she said. Big sister held her crying little sister all night.

They remembered their own trip to Gambia. The checkpoints, the hushed talk. “We had to be careful about what we said to anyone,” Sarah said.

And then, the worst came true.

Since 1994, the small country had been under the rule of President Yahya Jammeh, a man criticized internationally for human rights abuses, especially for his stance on homosexuality.

“We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively,” he said in 2014. He also claimed to have come up with an HIV/AIDS cure made of herbs and bananas.

The United States officially condemned his statements.

Jawara is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Although her family has connections to Gambia’s opposition party, Jawara maintains that she was simply a bystander before she was beaten and locked up.

U.S. State Department officials met with her and attended all her hearings, and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson launched his humanitarian organization, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, into action to try to get Jawara home.

None of it worked.

The daughters organized protests and rallies. They made “Free Fanta Jawara” T-shirts and posters. In Gambia, they knew they would be locked up for doing this.

They learned to do all the cooking and cleaning and laundry that Mom always did.

“She did so much for us,” Aminata said.

Their dad, Ebrima Jawara, is a mechanic at Ourisman Honda. He split his time between work, his daughters’ activities and trying to get his wife home.

The family learned what a force their mother was in their lives. The hole she left was huge. Aminata drove her little sister to all her activities. Dad’s cooking improved.

“A little better,” Sarah said.

“But that chicken!” he protested.

Ultimately, it was the stunning election of a political outsider, a businessman, that freed Jawara.

His name is Adama Barrow. And his defeat of Jammeh on Dec. 1 was the radical change that led to her return to the United States this week.

The new administration released all of the locked-up demonstrators. After another month of negotiations and paperwork, Jawara was headed home.

The girls were anxious Thursday night. They had cleaned the house top to bottom. (On Friday morning, Mom did an inspection. She approved.) There were red-white-and-blue balloons, roses, cousins and nephews. They paced after she landed. The lawyers stationed at Dulles to help immigrants came over to introduce themselves, in case there was trouble. The plane landed. No Mom.

“Customs, it takes awhile,” a family member who recently made the trip assured them.
And at last, there she was.

“Welcome home, Fanta!” they yelled, as she pushed her luggage cart through the gates at Dulles.

Her daughters ran to hug her. People cried. Bystanders shoved their way in to take her photo. “Who is she?” they asked.

It was her return, Jawara said, that made her feel most like an American. She was home. And she was free.

Twitter: @petulad