After long dictatorship, Gambia’s victims step forward
A reckoning is under way as ex-dictator Yahya Jammeh’s crimes come to light
Relatives of victims of the regime of former president Yahya Jammeh demonstrate in Banjul, demanding answers on the state of the investigation on the disappearance of their loved ones. Photograph: Claire Bargeles/AFP/Getty Images
Two of the four full-time staff in the country’s newly set up Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations are discussing a case. “The lady killed herself and killed the husband in 2016,” one woman is explaining. “They believed she killed herself, anyway.”
Actually, it has now emerged, the couple were both killed by Gambian security forces, forces working under the direction of the west African country’s ex-dictator Yahya Jammeh, a hugely feared eccentric who was voted out of power in late 2016.
The victims centre was set up to support and collect testimonies from survivors of the varied abuses carried out under Jammeh, who had been in power for 22 years before he was ousted.
The bustle inside this outwardly unremarkable building is proof that The Gambia is in the middle of a long-awaited reckoning. Until recently, his west African country was isolated, its two million citizens subject to the whims of a dictator who claimed he could cure Aids, asthma and infertility.
When he wasn’t forcing the sick to go through with unscientific and sometimes life-threatening treatments, Jammeh seemed more concerned with luxury cars – using state money to buy Rolls Royces and Bentleys. Though supporters praise Jammeh for developing some areas of the country, many others suffered, as he pitted tribe against tribe and brutally repressed anyone who emerged as a threat to his rule.
Just over a year after the victims centre was set up, more than 1,000 people have registered claims, an astounding number in a country where – until recently – you could be killed for speaking out. Survivors hope for anything from compensation to the chance to see Jammeh face trial.
Their stories range from brutal torture in the notorious Mile 2 Prison, to the disappearance of loved ones, to the confiscation of land. Some of those who arrive here are so traumatised they cannot speak about what they’ve been through until several sessions with a psychologist.
Others still have bullets in their bodies – scars they reveal to explain what happened to them.
Ayeesha Jammeh (26), now a co-ordinator and activist in the victims centre, quit her job as an administrative assistant in an IT company to become a focal point for the movement.
‘Dream come true’
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” she says. “It’s a dream come true for me. I had to get justice for my dad.”
Ayeesha is a natural leader; she was one of the first who felt strong enough to speak out against the ex-president. She’s also personally invested: her father, Haruna Jammeh, was a cousin of Jammeh and ran the president’s farm in his hometown, Kanilai.
The young woman’s pain is still evident. She was just 14 when Haruna went missing. Jammeh perceived her father as a threat because he was so well respected, Ayeesha says. Her aunt was also disappeared, after she asked what had happened.
Later, Ayeesha’s mother gathered her children together and told them never to speak about their absent relatives. When anyone asked, Ayeesha lied that her father was travelling.
“Since my dad went missing we never talked about our story. You don’t know who is who . . . You might tell your story and the next minute that person will report you.”
Ayeesha said even students, market vendors and schoolteachers were informers. “You would not even dare to criticise the government. You would not be safe. They would come after you.”
She now knows her father was killed, after a surprise 2013 confession by a man involved. “Justice for me is knowing what has happened to my dad. Why he was killed. Having closure. Getting the people who committed the crime to be prosecuted.”
Inside the reception of the victims centre, another staff member looks over, nodding. Her brother was also murdered, she believes by Jammeh’s security forces.
The two were among a small group of victims that began meeting in February last year, two months after the elections. At first, about seven families would sit in a restaurant on Saturdays and quietly discuss what should happen next.
With some support from the new government, led by President Adama Barrow, the victims centre has been participating in outreach missions across The Gambia. So far they’ve done three, aimed at publicising the centre and registering victims. Ayeesha said she estimates there could be tens of thousands they still haven’t reached.
In many cases, she says, “you have to explain to [villagers] what human rights violations really are . . . Some people are still scared to talk about their stories.”
Jammeh is now in Equatorial Guinea, but survivors and lawyers still hope they can make him face trial. Across Africa, analysts, activists and politicians are monitoring their progress, while considering the continent’s many other autocrats who may be guilty of human rights abuses.
At the end of May, three victims of Jammeh’s fraudulent HIV/Aids cure sued him in the country’s high court, after the ex-president forced them to give up antiretroviral drugs, saying he would cure them completely through a mix of herbs and spices.
Other cases are looming, too.
“We’re building the legal case and campaigning to create the political conditions in Gambia and around the region to bring [Jammeh] to justice,” said Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch, who is heavily involved in the process.
Brody has also worked with victims of Chadian dictator Hissène Habré – who was convicted for crimes against humanity in 2016.
“Our experience in the Habre case is we don’t take no for an answer.”
Ayeesha certainly wants a prosecution. “They should be in prison,” she says. “They should be behind bars for as long as their lifespan.”
Before he was summoned to manage Jammeh’s family farm, Ayeesha’s father was a hotelier. “My dad was a man of peace,” she says.
“He would do anything to put smiles on our faces. He had a dream for me to become a chartered accountant.”
Instead, with her father gone and mother struggling to make ends meet, Ayeesha wasn’t able to finish her education. Yet she smiles, if only for a moment, saying she likes to think he’d be proud of what she’s doing now.