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One warm July night in 2013, 39-year-old Alhaji Mamut and his friend Ebou Jobe went out to a concert in the suburbs of the Gambian capital, Banjul. After the music ended, they got in their car to drive home. They never reached their destination. The next morning Alhaji’s mother, Mamie Ceesay, called her son but he did not answer. She went to his residence and found it had been ransacked.
“I asked around and I was told that the government had arrested them. I went to the police station and I went to the American embassy, because they are dual citizens. I even wrote to President Yahya Jammeh directly. Nothing.”
For 22 years, Gambia – a small West African nation of just under two million people – was ruled by strongman Yahya Jammeh. He is accused of creating a climate of repression and fear through widespread torture and frequent abductions, disappearances and unlawful detentions.
On 1 December 2016, President Jammeh was defeated in a presidential election by opposition candidate Adama Barrow. After first accepting his defeat, Jammeh backtracked, rejecting the election results and declaring a state of emergency. After a tense standoff with regional troops, Jammeh fled to Equatorial Guinea where he remains to this day.
Since Jammeh’s departure, hundreds of victims of his abuses have been organising and are keen to play a role in uncovering the human rights violations that occurred under his rule and bring perpetrators to justice.
Their organisation, the Gambian Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations – commonly called the ‘Victims’ Center’ – provides support for the survivors of false imprisonment and torture during the Jammeh regime, as well as the loved ones of the disappeared and murdered. It also seeks to amplify their voices on the national stage. Yet challenges remain for people who suffered decades in silence.
The Victims’ Center was born from a series of informal lunch meetings held by victims and their families after President Barrow’s inauguration in February 2017. Saul Mbenga, a Gambian activist who lives between Gambia and the United States, helped organise some of the early meetings.
“I realised we needed to sit down and see how we could forge an organisation of victims. We knew that when this new government came in, we would have to start lobbying them.”
These early meetings were the first time many victims had spoken about what happened to them and their families. Ayeshah Jammeh was 15 when her father, Haruna, did not come home from work in 2005. Even being a first cousin raised as an older brother to the president did not spare Haruna the dictator’s wrath. Ayeshah waited 11 years to learn that her father had been murdered and allegedly dumped in a well on the President Jammeh’s farm.
Ayeshah says that at the group’s first meeting it was heartbreaking to see all the suffering caused by the Jammeh regime, but it also felt good to talk “because I kept quiet for 11 years.” She says that the early meetings led to a shared solidarity amongst victims and family members: “We all have each others’ backs because we feel each others’ pain. We are focused on justice for our families. We’re all in this together.”
Shared experiences, shared pain
The organisation reached a turning point when members met the victims of the Chadian dictator Hissène Habré. Habré ruled the central African country of Chad using fear, intimidation and torture in the 1980s. After he was deposed in 1990, it took over 25 years, a special court in Senegal, and the tenacity and courage of his victims for Habré to become the first African dictator to be convicted on African soil by African judges of crimes against humanity. After Habré’s final appeal was rejected in Dakar this April, some of his victims visited Gambia to meet with and encourage their Gambian allies.
“Jammeh and Habré were almost the same,” says Mamie Ceesay. “So when I saw someone who passed through what I passed, and they got justice, that gave me hope that one day I’ll get justice too.”
While the Gambians were learning from the Chadians, the Gambian Ministry of Justice (MOJ) was starting the process of establishing what has become the Truth, Reparations and Reconciliation Commission (TRRC).
According to senior government officials the Commission will start touring the country to collect public testimony from victims and perpetrators early next year.
Based on the testimony “recommendations” will be issued as to who should face prosecution, and what kind of reforms need to be undertaken to ensure Gambia does not slide back into authoritarianism.
After the Habré meeting, the Center started identifying victims and reaching out to the government. At the Ministry of Justice, they gained the ear of the Attorney General, Abubacarr Tambadou.
“We see the victims as a key partner in our transitional justice process,” Tambadou tellsEqual Times. “They know we have an open door policy and they can walk in here and discuss just about anything that they want to.”
While the relationship between the Ministry of Justice and the Victims’ Center has not been perfect, members of the Center generally agree with this characterisation. It was at the victims’ insistence that reparations were added to the mandate of the TRRC. When the ministry organised a “technical committee” to tour the country and collect suggestions from the public about the TRRC, a seat was reserved for the Center. Members have also been granted the opportunity to review the bill establishing the TRRC and submit their suggestions before it goes to the National Assembly.
Despite their passion and the support from some government officials, significant challenges are on the horizon. The Victims’ Center currently runs on a minuscule budget. All staff are volunteers with little experience of running a non-profit. In late July the Center had registered 75 victims – now it has more than 400.
“A lot of these folks have never been involved in running a voluntary organisation,” says Dr Amadou Scattred Janneh, a former Minister of Information and Communication who serves the Victims’ Center in an advisory capacity. Dr Janneh was arrested and found guilty of treason in 2011 for distributing t-shirts with the slogan “End to Dictatorship Now.” He spent over a year in solitary confinement before being pardoned and fleeing to the United States (he holds dual US and Gambian citizenship). “We’re pushing for capacity building, for them to have the necessary training on documentation, advocacy, putting out press releases and organising an office.”
The Center wants to organise a digital database of all registered victims and code it according to the abuses they suffered. Dr Janneh also wants the Center to connect lawyers with those who can provide the evidence necessary for prosecutions.
Everyone agrees that a key priority is to help victims suffering physical and psychological pain access medical help.
“The most urgent priority has been medical treatment and psychological counseling for victims,” explains Dr Janneh. “When we hold meetings, even though we are not experts, we can tell many of the victims have psychological problems and people are still in severe pain. These people need urgent attention.”
International organisations are starting to help meet these challenges. Reed Brody, Counsel for Human Rights Watch on the Habré case, has been helping to publicise their presence internationally and connect the group with outside resources. Money from the European Union is in the pipeline to hire full-time staff. A consultant who helped with the Habré case has been brought in to help build organisational skills. The Gambia-based Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) is providing legal aid.
Meanwhile the victims of Yahya Jammeh are preparing for the long road ahead – and they are optimistic. Just a few weeks ago, the #Jammeh2Justice campaign was launched with the goal of bringing Jammeh back to the Gambia to account for his crimes. “We know it will not happen overnight,” says Ayeshah. “But we are passionate and we will not rest until we have justice.”