Letter from Africa: Torture revelations transfix The Gambia

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The truth of what happened under ex-President Jammeh (C) has been more gruesome than the whispered rumours

In our series of letters from African journalists, Sierra Leonean-Gambian writer Ade Daramy says Gambians are trying to come to terms with the horrors committed during brutal rule of the former regime.

The citizens of the mainly Muslim country of The Gambia have an image of themselves and how they would like the rest of the world to see them.

The Gambia of the popular imagination - inside and outside the country - is of tourist brochures, advertising sun, sand and "the smiling coast".

Gambia Nice, one of the most popular tunes of recent years, has the line: "Peace and love is all there is in my motherland."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Gambia, popular with tourists, advertises itself as the "smiling coast of West Africa"

But lately, there has been something giving Gambians less to smile about: The hearings before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC).

It was formed to establish a "historical record of the nature, causes and extent of violations and abuses of human rights committed during the period July 1994 to January 2017" - a specific period encompassing the 22-year reign of now-exiled President Yahya Jammeh.

Must-watch viewing

The commission, made up of 11 members from a diverse cross-section of Gambian society - female, male, different religions and ethnic origins, will also consider the granting of reparation to victims.

Yahya Jammeh: At a glance

  • Seized power in a coup in 1994 aged 29
  • In 2013, he vowed to stay in power for "a billion years" if God wills
  • He also ordered the execution of criminals and political opponents on death row
  • Claimed in 2007 he could cure Aids and infertility with herbal concoctions
  • Warned in 2008 that gay people would be beheaded
  • Denied his security agents killed journalist Deyda Hydara in 2004
  • Forced from power in January 2017 by regional powers after losing elections in 2016
  • Living in exile in Equatorial Guinea

The hearings are broadcast daily on independent TV and radio and have quickly become must-watch viewing and listening across the nation.

From Mondays to Thursdays, sometimes for five or six hours, give a break or two, everyone who has a TV or radio seems transfixed.

In a bus, taxi or in offices, you regularly hear people ask each other, usually with incredulity: "Did you hear so-and-so's testimony?"

Image source, Ade Daramy
Image caption,
Headlines, like these in the Foroyaa paper, have been dominated by the TRRC for months

"I can't believe Gambians did this to other Gambians," has become the most commonly heard statement in the country.

What the hearings have revealed, and continue to reveal, is the unpeeling of a layer of barely believable horror, and a rude awakening for the nation - forcing it to see itself in a new and often harsh light.

'Legs chopped off'

The truth has been far more gruesome than the whispered rumours of the past.

Part of the horror stems from both the number of cases and the manner of the killings; even where people knew opponents of the regime had disappeared or died, they had, in some cases, believed the "official version".

Ade Daramy
Some perpetrators have admitted they knew their victims very well and, in some cases, had been friends"
Ade Daramy

At the TRRC, perpetrators have given chapter and verse on their roles in those incidents.

Four months after the coup that brought Mr Jammeh to power, there was an alleged counter-coup, by soldiers said to have become disillusioned that the junta was showing signs of reneging on the promise of a timetable for a handover to civilian rule.

But a witness told the commission that a purge was organised by the junta on 11 November, targeting about two dozen disgruntled soldiers.

The TRRC's mission:

  • To establish a record of abuses committed during Mr Jammeh's 22-year rule when it is alleged there were arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances and torture against critics
  • Its 11 independent commissioners can grant reparations to victims
  • Backed by the UN and funded by international donors, it began hearing testimonies in November 2018
  • Its motto is "Never again"

According to the official announcement on local radio and broadcast on the BBC World Service, one of the alleged counter-coupists, Basirou Barrow, was killed in action with some other soldiers "while attacking a barracks".

One of his widows - he had two wives - said she was out near a shopping area when she heard his name in the BBC report, causing her to faint.

At the TRRC, we heard the real story: in fact he had been arrested, beaten, stripped naked, had his hands tied and was shot and bayonetted.

Another one of those killed in the "counter-coup" was Lieutenant Gibril Saye.

It was not until the TRRC that the admission emerged that because he was more than 6ft tall, he would not fit into the hastily dug grave, so one of his killers ran to a kitchen and got an axe to chop off his legs to make him fit.

Testimonies and tears

Every day's hearing seems to uncover a shocking revelation or two.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Silenced for 22 years, victims of the Jammeh regime are having an opportunity to speak out

They have not been isolated cases but seemed to have been the modus operandi of the regime during the early years of Mr Jammeh's rule.

In April, commissioners and family members went to see the exhumed remains of soldiers executed and dumped in a mass grave for their alleged part in the alleged failed counter-coup.

More on The Gambia:

This came not long after they had visited what, on the outside appeared to be a nondescript family home, only for it to be revealed to everyone, unsuspecting long-term neighbours included, as a multiple-cell makeshift prison and torture chamber.

Some witnesses have broken down in tears as they detailed the torture and mock executions they experienced in detention.

The fact that this is such a small country - it is just a little bigger than Caribbean island of Puerto Rico - and with a population of under two million only makes the revelations worse.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The slogan "Never again" adorns the headquarters of the TRRC

Some perpetrators have admitted they knew their victims very well and, in some cases, had been friends, had graduated in the same class or previously belonged to the same regiment.

There have been instances of many witnesses expressing remorse and asking forgiveness of victims' relatives and the nation.

The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan brought a welcome respite for all, giving everyone a chance to draw breath and reflect.

Sittings are set resume later this month.

When President Jammeh was unseated in the 2016 election, Gambians talked of "Gambia before, during and after Jammeh".

When the TRRC concludes its deliberations, Gambians hope the two slogans hung on the walls where the hearings are being heard will come to pass: "The truth shall set you free" and "Never again".

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