‘Hide, the army’s here, they’re trying to accuse us of being witches’
Ten years after a wave of witch hunts in The Gambia, victims are speaking publicly
Lamin Ceesay and his wife, Fatou Dibba, who was accused of being a witch in 2009 and forced to drink a liquid that caused hallucinations. Photograph: Sally Hayden
It was a national holiday and children were parading in the streets of Sintet, an inland village in The Gambia, when the 2009 witch hunts began. American Tim Lawrence, then a 26-year-old peace corps worker in the West African country, remembers hundreds of military and other armed men arriving “out of nowhere”.
“They surrounded the village,” he recalled, in a phone interview this week with The Irish Times. “When people tried running away [military] came out of the bushes to scoop them up. The villagers knew why they were there . . . they were saying ‘hide yourself, the army’s here and they’re trying to accuse us of being witches’. It was insanity.”
Lawrence bolted after he saw his Gambian neighbours lined up at gunpoint and forced to stand in front of a mirror, one by one. A “shaman”, wearing traditional red clothes, stood behind them, watching closely. “I assume that was their test,” Lawrence said.
Jammeh believed in witchcraft, and ordered witch hunts following the death of his aunt and others close to him, claiming they had been killed by black magic
The presence of the “green boys”, vigilante hunters fiercely loyal to Gambia’s long-standing dictator Yahya Jammeh, convinced Sintet’s villagers that the order to target them had come from the very top.
“The children were the ones who were wide-eyed and running away and screaming,” said Lawrence. “The adults seemed to know what was up. Some people tried to escape and they were swallowed by soldiers in the village. I think people understood the power of President Jammeh and I don’t think anyone was really willing to fight that.”
Now, after 10 years of silence, citizens of The Gambia are finally beginning to testify publicly about what really happened during the witch hunts.
Jammeh was ousted in 2017, after 22 years in power. A stout, eccentric man, he cemented his rule with brutality and repression, while convinced that he personally was able to cure Aids and infertility, as well as a host of other conditions. Jammeh believed in witchcraft, and ordered witch hunts following the death of his aunt and others close to him, claiming they had been killed by black magic.
A truth and reconciliation commission examining human rights abuses under Jammeh is now under way, and the witch hunts have been the focus of the hearings for the past few weeks.
Witnesses taking part include multiple police officers, who say police were among those accused of being witches or wizards.
Ensa Badjie, the former police inspector general, told the commission he was forced to undress and stand in front of a mirror during another 2009 witch hunt. He said his employees were ordered to stand in a circle around men in traditional dress, who were drumming and singing, until several staff were identified as witches or wizards.
Former civil servants in Gambian capital Banjul told The Irish Times that government offices were also searched and civil servants rounded up sporadically.
In early 2018, I visited Sintet and Kamfenda, both sites of government-ordered witch hunts. In Sintet, victim after victim told their stories, with all of them saying it was the first time they had spoken about it. They remembered dozens of older people being taken away in school buses.
Victims were taken to a military compound where they were forced to drink a liquid at gunpoint, some of them multiple times. The liquid caused them to lose consciousness, vomit or have hallucinations. Some said they were physically or sexually abused afterwards, or forced to confess to murders.
Survivors said they want justice. They are still suffering from stomach problems or body pain which they blamed on the ordeal. One woman said her mother had died days after the witch hunts, unable to drink water or eat food anymore. More passed away in the following months or years, making it difficult to confirm the role the witch hunts had played in the deaths, though survivors say it was significant.
When I went to Kanfenda, which is traditionally a Jammeh stronghold, residents were still frightened to speak. Many even denied witch hunts took place. It took visiting every house in the village to find witnesses, and eventually a victim. The most forthright person was a drunk man, who re-enacted the way the witch hunters and military had abducted villagers or threatened them.
Among those I interviewed in Sintet were the Gambian family that Lawrence, the peace corps worker, lived with. Fatou Dibba, a quiet, mild-mannered woman, as well as her mother, who has since died, were both victims of the witch hunts. Her mother never recovered from the ordeal, Dibba and her husband told me. Dibba also confessed she would also never have confirmed what happened while Jammeh was still in power.
In the aftermath of the 2009 witch hunts, Lawrence said, “no one wanted to speak about it. They abducted people and they returned almost everybody three days later.” He said Dibba never discussed it, and her mother readily lied. “She said it was wonderful [being away] and she ate meat every meal of the day” – something which would have been a big deal to Gambians from Sintet, where meat was expensive.
“But then I was speaking with fishermen, friends of mine who were also abducted, they told me she was speaking in tongues and defecating herself all the time,” Lawrence said. “So I don’t know if it was her own pride or if that was her memory of it.”
While there was a “solemn attitude” in Sintet in the months after the ordeal, Lawrence added that – with Jammeh still in power – “I think it was everyone’s personal mission to put it behind them.” That has now changed.