DAKAR, Sept 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Omar was 10 years old when he was first beaten with sticks and chased from the schoolyard by children shouting “goor-jigeen”, meaning “man-woman” in the Senegalese language Wolof.
Growing up gay in the West African country, the violence only got worse. Now a slim 22-year-old, he is so afraid of abuse that he rarely leaves the house.
“One day they could kill me, I don’t know. They hate us,” said Omar, whose name has been changed for his protection, speaking in a low voice at a cafe in the capital, Dakar.
In the past three years he has been robbed, attacked by a mob, stoned in the street, and arrested and detained after someone reported to the police that he was gay, he said.
An official speaking for Senegal’s national police denied that they arrest people on suspicion of homosexuality, though rights groups said this happens at least several times a year.
A mainly Muslim nation known for its religious tolerance, Senegal is nonetheless more aggressive than many African states in enforcing its anti-gay law, which criminalises “unnatural acts”, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International.
Violence and verbal abuse are daily occurrences for many LGBT+ people in Senegal, but those who report it risk being arrested themselves, said Djamil Bangoura, president of local support group Association Prudence.
Shunned by their families, many live in constant fear, moving house frequently and taking pains to blend in, he said.
“Other countries are fighting for marriage and adoption rights. Our fight is a fight for survival,” he said.
Omar was staying with friends last year in a suburb of Dakar when about 30 men broke in at 1:00 am and beat them, stealing their phones and money and shouting anti-gay slurs, he said.
They reported the crime, but police told them to forget it and leave the neighbourhood when they heard that they were gay, he said. He slept outside for two days.
It could have been worse.
Committing an “improper or unnatural act” with a person of the same sex is punishable by one to five years in prison and a fine of up to 1,500,000 CFA francs ($2,715) under Senegal’s penal code.
Human Rights Watch documented 39 cases of arrest under this law from 2011 to early 2016, and received dozens of reports of others that it was unable to verify, the rights group said.
In seven cases, LGBT+ people were arrested after reporting hate crimes to the police, said HRW researcher Neela Ghoshal, adding that the group presented these findings to the government at the time but has not noticed any change.
“Here, we don’t talk about homosexuality, we talk about acts against nature,” said Mbaye Sady Diop, a lieutenant in the office of the director general of national police.
“There is no individual who has been arrested because he was suspected of being gay,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Omar was arrested two years ago - rounded up at a party with other gay friends and jailed for a week in southern Senegal after someone tipped off the police, he said.
These cases often go unreported and do not usually end in trial, said Amnesty International researcher Francois Patuel.
Most often people are released without formal charges after a day or two, sometimes after their families pay, he said.
Thirty-three of Africa’s 54 states criminalise homosexuality in some form, but only 18 had made an arrest in the last three years, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s (ILGA) 2017 report.
In a dark room smelling of incense in a suburb of Dakar, Moussa (not his real name) runs a sort of one-man shelter.
He guesses he has taken in about a dozen young men over the past few years after they were outed and chased from home.
“I can’t see someone suffering. It’s like he was me,” said the 29-year-old, making tea over a gas burner on his floor.
A handful of organisations such as Association Prudence try to help LGBT+ people by linking them up with others like Moussa.
But these groups have little funding, few allies and no power, activists said.
“I think part of the problem is a lack of support from broader civil society,” said Ghoshal of HRW, who worked in Senegal in 2015-16.
“The mainstream Senegalese human rights organisations hadn’t really taken on LGBT issues,” she said.
Even the LGBT+ groups focus mainly on HIV/AIDS prevention, not on broader issues of wellbeing or legal advocacy, she said.
“The associations don’t do anything,” said Omar, who contacted several when he first got to Dakar but said they offered no assistance.
“I have no one. If I get sick, who will help me?”
Like Moussa, he dreams of leaving Senegal. Both have heard it is possible in other countries to apply for asylum, but they have no money and don’t know how.
“When I have transport I’ll go,” said Moussa. He doesn’t care where.
“When I’m here my mind’s not at ease,” he said. “When I try to sleep, it hurts. I think, why me?”