Sharing first day of freedom with Gambia’s political prisoners

Banjul Letter: How I witnessed release of prisoners held in notorious Mile 2 Central Prison

 

It was another momentous day for the Gambia. Having just freed itself from the brutal grip of dictator Yahya Jammeh, the country was about to witness the release of political prisoners from the notorious Mile 2 Central Prison.

Arrested in April at a demonstration over the death in custody of an opposition activist, the group had become a national cause célèbre, spurring a fragmented opposition to unite against the tyrant at the ballot box. Now, they sat in the supreme court, awaiting the judge’s verdict.

When it came, the entire courtroom erupted with joy. Journalists, lawyers and supporters surged towards the prisoners, cameras and mobile phones flashing. Avoiding the scrum, I slipped out a door into the main hall, ready to snap their exit.

Less than a minute later, the prisoners appeared, but they’d only been temporarily removed from the courtroom, while the mob was evacuated out of the back. And, now, I was being herded back in with them.

Clearly exhausted, the 19 prisoners, many of them old men, flopped down and waited to sign their bail papers. A police officer drew the curtains on the frenzied crowds clamouring for a peek through the barred windows. Somehow, I’d ended up on the inside. Unbelievably, nobody was giving me my marching orders.

How do you feel? I asked Femi Peters, founder of the United Democratic Party, cautiously feeling for my notepad in my bag.

“Oh, not too bad,” he said, with a wry smile.

“How did the prison react to the election results?”

“Oh, the whole jail was on fire that day,” he said.

‘We’re not free yet’

Peters was reluctant to talk about conditions in the prison. “We’re not free yet,” he said, cocking his head towards the guards. I asked how long he’d been fighting the Jammeh regime, but he suddenly looked vacant, as if he’d had a memory lapse. He shook his head. “I am very tired,” he said.

Doudon Ceesay was sitting right at the end of the bench. Younger than the other men, he seemed less afraid of talking.

“We were beaten and put in solitary confinement,” he said. “It was completely harsh.” He posed for a photo with his friend and I clicked away as the guards looked on, almost benevolently.

Ousainou Darboe, the leader of the UDP, said that he wasn’t surprised by the opposition victory. While he was in the prison, he could hear the shouts from his cell: “Darboe, Darboe, Darboe!” they cried.

But the victory had been bittersweet. “I was saddened also because a lot of people who’d been with us all those years died. They were working for this day.

“If we hadn’t won, I would have been devastated,” he said.

A lawyer came in, took Darboe by the shoulders with both hands. “You are a hero of the nation,” he told him. Darboe, known as “the Mandela of the Gambia”, had been fighting Jammeh for two decades.

“Just look at him,” said the lawyer, Sheikh Tijan Hydara, who’d been negotiating the prisoners’ release since the opposition victory on December 2nd “This is not the Darboe I knew. He’s been through a lot.”

“Maybe I should introduce myself properly,” he said. It turned out that Hydara was Jammeh’s minister of justice from 2003 to 2006. In a regime known for constantly chopping and changing ministers he’d had a fair run, but eventually he’d got the chop.

Compromised and ostracised, he lived in fear. “If I was in the street and the presidential convoy came towards me, I would put my head down just in case he saw me and remembered something that would bring me trouble,” he said.

After an hour’s wait, we were all led out the court building. I ducked under the chain of policemen and found myself in a crowd of hundreds, who were going wild at the sight of their political heroes.

Attacked by riot police

The next day, I bumped into Sheriffo Suno (38), who’d just been released in a second cohort, away from the media glare. His first stop was the beach, where he’d gone to cleanse himself of his prison experience in the sea.

Free to speak, he described how he had been attacked by riot police at protests, beaten with a truncheon, the tendons on his arm severed with a knife, disabling the middle finger of his left hand. “Then one of them said ‘Let’s finish him off’ and tried to choke me,” he said.

He said that prisoners were forced to sleep in a hole, men piled two or three deep into a space 2.5m long and 1 metre wide which was covered by wood. “I cannot describe the heat,” he said. “We couldn’t move, couldn’t change position. We cooked like chickens.”

Now he was going home to catch some sleep, his first night of freedom in the new Gambia.

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