The Gambia, the hidden horrors of Africa's silent dictatorship | International

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At just 29 years old, in 1994, Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh staged a coup in the Gambia, a small West African country (two million inhabitants), ending more than two decades of rule by Dawda Jawara, the leader who guided the independence of the United Kingdom. For more than 20 years and with total impunity, Jammeh led a relentless machine of terror with murders, rapes, torture and crimes worthy of the worst tyrant. Opponents, journalists, members of his own family, soldiers whom he accused of rebellion, immigrants, homosexuals, women branded as witches, religious leaders and young girls were his victims. Three years ago, Jammeh was forced to leave power, but Gambians now face the chilling details of a horror they only sensed, in an impressive exercise in collective catharsis through the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission. (TRRC).

Since the sessions began in Banjul, the Gambian capital, in October 2018, more than 200 people have testified before the commission, which has resumed its work after a four-month hiatus due to the coronavirus crisis. Two thirds of those who have given their testimony are victims; the rest, executioners and experts.

Not a single inch of my body was left untouched. They put out their cigarettes on me

On June 11, the soldier of the dictator's special forces, known as Junglers, Michael Sang Correa, who is detained in the United States, was accused by the Department of Justice of this country of participating in torture against detainees. For the first time, a member of Yahya Jammeh's death squads faces a legal process. During the TRRC sessions, his former colleagues also implicated him in several murders, including those of journalists Deyda Hydara and Chief Ebrima Manneh. In Switzerland, former Gambian minister Ousman Sonko is also waiting in prison, accused of crimes against humanity.

“I was naked in that room, as I came into the world. Not a single inch of my body was left untouched. They put out their cigarettes on me. " The religious Baba Leigh, imam of the Kanifing mosque, gray beard, calm gesture, begins his story and the neat and very white room that listens to him, presided over by the slogans "The truth will set you free" and "Never again", contains the breathing. According to the imam, one of his torturers, “dressed as a ninja, masked, "he asked him about his religious status and warned him about who was actually running there:" Here, Oga He is before God ”, he says. Oga, the chief in Yoruba language. That's what they called Jammeh.

It is Wednesday and in every corner of the Gambia thousands of people are following the commission's session live. Televisions and radios have been smoking for hours. Waiters squint at the screen as they serve tourists breakfast, and taxi drivers turn up the volume to hear Baba Leigh over the noise of Banjul's traffic. The next day, the newspapers will give a good account of everything that is said. "The commission sessions are the soundtrack to the Gambia," says Marion Volkmann, a lawyer specializing in human rights and in the work of the TRRC.

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A dirt road in the middle of the tourist area forks. At the crossroads, two signs. In one you can see a drawing with a coconut tree, two hammocks and an umbrella on the beach. In the other, an arrow that indicates that a few meters away is the headquarters of the commission, a pristine building in which the Gambia, surrounded along its land border by Senegal and with an outlet to the Atlantic, is torn; Foreigners walk past the headquarters in flip-flops and swimsuits. In an office there, the executive secretary of the TRRC, Baba Jallow, is not exactly thinking about going to the beach.

“The Jammeh dictatorship was brutal, of tremendous cruelty, comparable in sadism to Idi Amin's in Uganda. He ordered to cut people to pieces, there were repeated castrations, rapes and sexual abuse, detainees were electrocuted in horrible torture sessions. The suffering generated was enormous ”, he assures. "If the sessions ended today we would already have enough elements to bring him to justice," he adds, arching an eyebrow.

Torture at the headquarters of espionage

In a large room on the ground floor, about 20 people follow the session with extreme attention. Imam Baba Leigh continues his account: “Those men dressed as Ninjas they beat me with canes and chains. But God, in His mercy, was with me and made me faint, stop feeling pain. Then they woke me up with cold water. So for nine days. Finally they took me to the back of the military camp and buried me alive. They gave me names to accuse them of treason, but I did not speak. It happened at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Jammeh's espionage and repression service, in December 2012. His crime? Having publicly stated his rejection of the execution of nine condemned to death by the regime.

One morning a paramilitary from Jammeh comes to testify how he murdered young Alhagie Ceesay in cold blood and threw the pieces of his body into an infectious hole, while days later it is the mother of the victim, Mamie Ceesay, who recounts the months of Search from police station to police station, sleepless nights, the terror of intuiting but not knowing, the blow of the truth finally assumed. The collective catharsis that comes with facing, looking into the eyes of the torturer and murderer of your child, father or sister is of a colossal dimension. "It is very sensitive, traumatizing, some of the perpetrators are still in government positions," says Jallow.

The TRRC sessions shed light on the darkness of the Jammeh regime, putting faces and names and surnames, an exercise as hard as it is necessary. Supported by the United Nations and with funding from the Gambian government, which today is taking its stammering and fragile first democratic steps, the commission traces the details of the repression so that the truth is known and the damage is repaired, but also so that something like this does not never happen again. “We have made a huge effort to raise awareness, we go to the villages and talk with the children. We are explaining to the people that no ruler is set by God. In The Gambia, as in other African countries, there is a great difference between the regime, with its Constitution, judicial system, elections, and so on; and the political culture, which makes many people think that a president is a divine institution, "says Jallow.

Many of the victims were his closest people, he was obsessed with plots

Abdul Aziz was just beginning to walk when his father, the young military man Bassiru Barrow, was arrested along with 10 comrades in arms. It was November 1994 and Jammeh, who had just come to power, was trying to silence critical voices within the Army. He was never seen alive again. “In my childhood, the school organized field trips to the president's farm in Kanilai, but my mother would never let me go. I didn't know why, ”explains Aziz. Lieutenant Barrow had his jaw and knees beaten and then shot, but his whereabouts were unknown to his family. On April 17, 2019, his bones were extracted from a mass grave at the Yundum Barracks barracks.

The crimes ordered by Jammeh or committed in his name are the hitherto hidden face of a paranoid personality. “Many of the victims were his closest people, he was obsessed with plots. Become part of your guard corps it was a high-risk profession, ”says Marion Volkmann. Not surprisingly, among the most famous disappeared of the regime are the one who was its finance minister Ousmane Koro Ceessay, the businessman who financed his own political party Baba Jobe, a military man who he thought was sleeping with his wife or even his own brother , Haruna Jammeh.

The king who ‘cured’ AIDS

The dictator had no limits. He once said that he would rule for "billions of years" and proclaimed himself Babili Mansa (the king who defies the rivers, in the Mandingan language). However, his raving could be a mere anecdote were it not for the fact that it also led to heinous crimes. He claimed that he could cure AIDS with self-made ointments and forced hundreds of HIV-positive people to give up retrovirals and go to his palace for treatment. Many died from it. He also carried out real "witch" hunts. Jammeh believed in sorcery and saw threats everywhere.

One of the people who knows this point best is the lawyer Fatou Baldeh, who returned to the Gambia after the fall of the dictator and has specialized in violence suffered by women. “We have visited all the communities in the country, even the most remote ones. Jammeh affected us all, directly or indirectly, ”he says. And he starts talking about Sintet, a small town near the border with Senegal. "One day in 2007 some soldiers came to this community, they took the women, stripped them in front of everyone and forced them to drink a potion, a mixture of herbs," says Baldeh. “If you vomited it, you had to drink again until you confessed to being a witch. Then they would transfer you to Jammeh's residence in Kanilai and hold you there until you you cured ”, Explain. Only in this town were 57 affected.

Women could not refuse to sleep with them if they demanded it

“We know that there are more villages where he did the same, but it is very difficult for women to talk about these things in our culture. They were humiliated, they abused them, "says Baldeh, who assures that the most common response when asked to testify is:" I will take what happened to my grave. " Something similar happens with rapes. Jammeh's elite military unit, whose members were known as the Junglers, I was licensed for everything. "Women could not refuse to sleep with them if they were required to do so, but the majority will refuse to talk about it because of the stigma (they would drag)," he concludes.

The big exception to this rule is called Toufah Jallow. In 2014, at just 18 years old, she was the winner of a national beauty pageant. They say that when Jammeh gave him the crown, he fell in love with the young woman. There began his hell. For months he gave her all kinds of gifts and favors and ended up asking her to marry him. The young woman rejected the offer until in June 2015, after being invited to the palace to attend a religious ceremony, the dictator locked her in a room and raped her, according to Toufah Jallow herself, on October 31, before the commission.

Jammeh's 'escort girls'

Two other young women, who preferred to remain anonymous, accused Jammeh of similar acts. His statements have served to reveal the existence of a network for the recruitment of girls who were placed at the service of the president. They were known as Protocol Girls (escort girls) and were constantly invited to the palace, to foreign trips or to the dictator's residence in Kanilai, his hometown. At the forefront of the network was Jimbee, the supreme leader's cousin, who used an arsenal of rewards and threats to bend his will and make them agree to have sex with him.

Haruna Jammeh, the former president's brother, was a simple man. Every Friday she went to school to inquire about her daughter Ayeesah's progress and bought her trinkets. One day, suddenly, it disappeared. “My mother did not want to talk about it. I asked her and she told me she was traveling. But on the street it was said that Yahya Jammeh had murdered him. I knew that my father was against some things that his brother did, but I did not want to believe it, ”Ayeesah says today. The details of this death were revealed on September 23 by jungler Omar Jallow, before the TRRC.

"Where are we going?" Asked Haruna Jammeh. "To Kanilai," Jallow replied. They knew each other, they were friends. The military man used to go to eat at his house and on some occasion the president's brother had rescued him from a predicament. Haruna didn't speak again the whole way. Sitting between the one he believed his friend Omar and three others junglersOnly Bojang, Sanna Manjang and Aliu Jeng, perhaps he sensed his destiny and devoted his last thoughts to silently saying goodbye to his wife and children, whom he would never see again. Perhaps he reviewed the events that led him to that car, the curse that fell on his family when his brother Yahya decided to take charge of his country.

In the photo, the extrajudicial execution of 11 soldiers accused of having organized a plot was one of the first crimes committed by the Jammeh regime, in November 1994. The skeletal remains of seven of them were found buried in a mass grave in the military camp. by Yundum Barracks. On video, The Gambia: the sadism of an unknown dictatorship. PHOTO: JASON FLORIO / VIDEO: REUTERS

Omar Jallow tells it to the commission dressed in his military uniform and wearing a green beret. He seems calm, sure of himself. “Before reaching Kanilai, Solo stopped the vehicle on a nearby hill. Sanna Manjang came out with a rope in her hand and gave it to Jeng and me to tie around Haruna's neck and throw him on the ground. I didn't know then that the mission was to kill him, ”declares Jallow. "Did you think they were going to play sports?" Asks questioner Essa Fall. “No, I thought we were just going to scare him. But after knocking him down and pinning him to the ground with the rope, Sanna Manjang, who was sitting on top of the car, jumped up and crushed his neck. Haruna died on the spot ”. Ayeesah Jammeh, the daughter of the murdered, swallows the anger and indignation sitting in the audience.

It was not the only crime Jallow participated in. On the night of July 22, 2005, 56 young Africans seduced by the dream of Europe, most of them Ghanaians, landed on a beach in the Gambia. They had been promised that from there a ship would take them to their destination. In those days, Jammeh, obsessed with his own safety, had heard rumors about a possible coup. When he learned of their arrival, his first thought was that they were mercenaries. After spending the night held at the Navy barracks, the dictator ordered that Tumbul Tamba, the feared chief of the Junglers, take over. His luck was cast.

It was something heinous, inhuman. It was clear that they were not mercenaries, they had no weapons

The following day, eight of them were executed in the forest with axes, machetes and knives. Jammeh had asked that they not use firearms so as not to alert the population. “It was atrocious, inhuman. It was clear that they were not mercenaries, they did not have weapons, ”says lawyer Marion Wolkmann. The testimonies of those who carried out the massacre are chilling: shattered heads, blood everywhere, dismembered bodies. A week later, when the Ghanaian government began asking questions at the urging of relatives, for Jammeh there was no going back. The Junglers the others were transported across the border with Senegal, plastic bags were placed over their heads and they were shot and killed. Their bodies were thrown into two wells then sealed with stones.

Jammeh's regime lasted 22 years. How could all these crimes go so unnoticed? Inside, disappearances were known, from time to time a corpse was found in the forest and those who returned from the jails recounted atrocities. “There was a rumor that they were foreigners who circulated at night, nobody could imagine that a Gambian could kill another like that, with that impunity. We were afraid, ”says Mamie Cissay. On the outside, he looked the other way. The Gambian opposition nationalized American Amadou Scrateh Janneh was arrested and transferred to the premises of the NIA, but his passport was saved. "Whoever has not lived through a dictatorship will not be able to understand the climate of terror," he says.

However, in December 2016 everything changed. The umpteenth presidential election that Jammeh hoped to win with ease with the usual mix of perks, fear and rigging did not turn out as he expected. Lost. For the first time, the fragile opposition had decided to go to the polls united and, to the surprise of the world, the candidate Adama Barrow was proclaimed president by the electoral commission. Jammeh, who initially accepted the results, later alleged irregularities and called for a new election. But the African countries had had enough of the dictator's tricks and eccentricities and closed ranks. The day that the troops of the Cedeao (Economic Community of West African States) crossed the borders of The Gambia, the once almighty Oga He was packing his bags for a golden exile in Equatorial Guinea, under the protection of the dictator Teodoro Obiang.

Jammeh trial?

Will Jammeh ever be tried? That is the desire of the victims and of human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch. Attorney Reed Brody, nicknamed the dictator hunter, has it in its sights and goes to the summits of the African Union to convince ministers and heads of state. Their hopes are that Ghana, where most of the brutally murdered emigrants came from, will issue an international arrest warrant and that the moment will come when international pressure will manage to break the resistance of Teodoro Obiang, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea.

In The Gambia, for now, it seems difficult. He continues to have great support. On January 16, thousands of Jammeh's followers took to the streets of Banjul in a massive demonstration called by his political party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), to demand the return of the dictator. "He is a citizen of this country, there is no law preventing him," says young Dodou Jah, a spokesman for the APRC, sitting in a cafeteria in The Village shopping center. “Nothing shows that he ordered those crimes or knew what was happening. They were committed in the dark, secretly. Those who incriminate him, provide evidence. Everything else is propaganda ”, he finishes firmly.

We see a lot of reconciliation speech but there has to be justice too

The victims begin to grow impatient. They celebrate the work of the commission, but ask for justice. Most of the confessed torturers and murderers are on probation and there is fear of an amnesty. “We see a lot of reconciliation speech but there has to be justice as well. The commission will make its recommendations, but the State must investigate in parallel and begin to judge ”, says lawyer Marion Volkmann.


Coordination: Óscar Gutiérrez

Design and layout: Ignacio Povedano

Art Direction: Fernando Hernández

Photography: Jason Florio

Graphic edition: Carlos Rosillo

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