BANJUL, Gambia — The confessions stop people short in Gambia’s sunbaked streets, drawing crowds to radios crackling with accounts of atrocities that are only now coming to light.
Murders. Rapes. Beatings. For more than two decades the citizens of this tiny West African nation knew life was deeply troubled under dictator Yahya Jammeh, who fled into exile nearly three years ago after a surprise election loss.
Now they have proof, in the form of sometimes heart-wrenching testimonies that have been nationally broadcast since the beginning of the year.
Gambia’s 2 million people are grappling with the revelations of the country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission as it attempts to unearth and record the horrors that occurred in the shadows of Jammeh’s 22-year rule.
Gambians flock to shops to watch on television or gather near radios to hear the most high-profile accounts. The hum of daily life slows, and debate begins.
“Every time the prominent witnesses appear at the TRRC, I’ve noticed it is just like an unproductive day,” said a taxi driver, Aziz Jobe.
President Adama Barrow’s administration has vowed to right the wrongs of the past. The commission is mandated to establish an impartial historical record of abuses committed from July 1994 to January 2017.
“Atrocities happened in the past, tearing families and communities apart. People have genuine grievances in their chest,” civil society activist Madi Jobarteh said.
Victims and perpetrators are taking the stand in chronological order, or by theme. The commission will then recommend whom should be prosecuted, whom should receive amnesty and what reparations can be granted. The government recently injected an “initial amount” of 50 million dalasis, or about $1 million, into the commission’s trust fund, saying the money came from the sale of Jammeh’s assets.
The goal is to “heal the nation and then move forward as one people,” chairman Lamin J. Sise has said.
It is likely that in the end Jammeh’s prosecution will be recommended, given the overwhelming testimonies of crimes, experts say. The former leader, however, is in Equatorial Guinea, which is unlikely to hand him over.
Most prominent among those testifying have been the “Junglers,” the notorious paramilitary hit men for Jammeh, who all indicated they acted at his direction to torture or kill.
Then, to the shock and dismay of many Gambians, they were released.
Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou declined to confirm whether a plea deal had been struck with the men, who had been detained for two years without trial.
“We want to assure the Gambian public that they have not escaped the long arm of the law,” said Gambia’s army commander, Brig. Gen. Momat Cham. “They are still being monitored. Let us wait until the final outcome of the TRRC.”
That attempt at reassurance doesn’t ease the minds of people like Naffie Ceesay, whose brother, former Finance Minister Ousman Koro Ceesay, was killed in 1995.
She had hoped that Edward Singhateh, defense minister under Jammeh, would confess to the murder.
While Singhateh did confess to having direct responsibility for the summary executions of 11 people linked to a 1994 coup attempt, he denied having any link with Ceesay’s killing, instead linking it to rebels in neighboring Senegal’s Casamance region. Many Gambians found that account surreal.
“Forgiveness is not for the villain,” said the U.S.-based Ceesay, who said she felt Singhateh was bent on tarnishing her brother’s image.
Reed Brody, a legal expert with Human Rights Watch, called the hearings only one step in Gambia’s long journey toward justice.
“This is the truth step, which is really important. It’s harder for people in good faith to deny the crimes that took place” with all of the testimonies coming forward, he said. But “for most victims, the truth is not enough. They want to see justice.”
Many Gambians have been moved by the stories of victims who were silenced for so long.
Late last month, a tearful Fatou “Toufah” Jallow, a former beauty pageant winner, told the commission she was raped by Jammeh and suffered deep humiliation.
She then sought asylum in Canada. She said her family in Gambia continued to suffer and that other pageant contestants were punished because she fled.
Jallow said she decided to come forward and tell her story “and take whatever backlash comes with it” so the next person can feel empowered to speak.
“I can still be a Gambian,” she said. “Jammeh is not more Gambian than I am.”
Hers was just one of the testimonies alleging the former president was a sexual predator who coerced young women into relationships by promising scholarships, even putting some on the state payroll.
Jammeh is yet to break his silence over the rape allegations and the leader of the former governing party, Fabakary Tombong Jatta, has dismissed the details of Jallow’s testimony. He told reporters that “what was wrong when they were in power cannot be right today.”
At the conclusion of Jallow’s testimony commission chairman Sise apologized, summing up the sentiments that have run deeply through the months of confessions.
“This is not just an assault on this young vulnerable woman, it was an assault on Gambia as a whole,” he said. “We are truly sorry about that, that you had to endure this.”
Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal.
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