Repression and violence in the gambia: the desire for justice

During Yahya Jammeh’s rule, thousands were arbitrarily arrested and tortured. The country faces a difficult process of coming to terms with the past.

For 22 years, ex-president Yahya Jammeh ruled Gambia – now he lives in exile Photo: dpa

Yusufa Mbaye’s world is only a few square meters in size and surrounded by walls. Whether he is sitting in his parents’ house in the living room or on the terrace, the 34-year-old gaunt man stares at high walls and sometimes at the television. Mbaye has been in a wheelchair for more than 17 years and can only cross the front gate if his sister or mother help him. Already in the house, movements make him uncomfortable. His handshake is limp.

In April 2000, a bullet hit Yusufa Mbaye in the back. Since then he has been paraplegic, constantly dependent on help and without an income of his own. He was neither able to finish his studies nor find a job. To this day, however, something else torments him: "I want to know who shot at me back then."

The shooting of the students in April 2000 is part of Gambia’s unresolved past. The trigger had been the death of a student in March. After a discussion with his lecturer, he had been taken out of the classroom by firemen, who subsequently tortured him to death.

During that time, a 13-year-old student was also raped. "We wanted to know what really happened. And we wanted someone to take responsibility," Yusufa Mbaye recalls, looking at his hands. But protests called by the Gambian Students Union ended with 14 students murdered on April . Mbaye survived and was flown to Egypt for treatment.

All this happened under the 22-year rule of Yahya Jammeh. In December 2016, he surprisingly lost the election to the then quite unknown opposition leader Adama Barrow. After tough negotiations by the West African Economic Community (Ecowas) and the presence of its armed forces Ecomog, which are still in the country today, Jammeh went into exile in Equatorial Guinea at the end of January. What he left behind, in addition to empty coffers, was a great deal of mistrust, unaddressed human rights violations and perpetrators who were never held accountable for their misdeeds.

"We don’t know what the number of victims is," admits Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou, 44, today, "Jammeh, after all, ruled for almost a quarter of a century." Among the victims are people who were quite obviously injured by security forces, but also those who were secretly tortured in the rooms of "Mile 2," as the country’s best-known prison is called.

Abubacarr Tambadou, minister

"We don’t know what the real number of victims is"

In early August, a report by the Reuters news agency made headlines saying that as many as 52 migrants from Senegal had been shot and buried just over the border. Jammeh, who came to power in a 1994 coup d’etat, was apparently terrified of a coup d’etat. Opposition figures report that numerous people have been accused and arrested as a result.

Tambadou’s ambitious goal is to come to terms with all of this. Citizens who have been victims of violence can turn to his ministry, but also to the Gambian Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations. This is coordinated by the Truth, Reconciliation and Compensation Commission, which was established with international support and nearly 1.2 million euros. "We need to know the truth. Only in this way can the healing and reconciliation process begin," says the justice minister.

Yusufa Mbaye was hit in the back by a bullet; since then he has been paraplegic Photo: Katrin Gansler

The culprits have not yet been determined

Autocracy: In 1994, 29-year-old soldier Yahya Jammeh putsched his way to power and established a brutal dictatorship. Under him, Gambia, one of Africa’s smallest countries with a population of 2 million, became one of the main countries of origin for African refugees in Europe.

Democracy: Opposition leader Adama Barrow surprisingly won in elections on Dec. 1, 2016. Jammeh first acknowledged defeat, then did not. A military intervention led by Senegal forced his departure on Jan. 20, 2017. He fled to Equatorial Guinea. (D. J.)

There is an open, relaxed atmosphere on the streets of Banjul, as well as in resorts further south. Young people in particular are quick and willing to talk about the years under Jammeh and, above all, the spirit of optimism. However, it is said off the record that the Diola now fear for power and influence. The ex-president also belongs to this ethnic group. According to Justice Minister Tambadou, in order to prevent a split, care was taken when appointing the commission to ensure that all regions and ethnic groups felt represented.

Whether this will succeed, however, is still completely unclear. So far, it has not even been determined who will be held accountable for the human rights violations. Is it the squad around Jammeh, or is it also soldiers and police officers who did not intervene in cases of violence or even tortured themselves.

Yusufa Mbaye has a clear answer: he demands that all crimes be investigated. "Of course I want to know who shot at me back then," he repeats. His voice sounds louder and more determined than it did a few minutes ago.

At the same time, all the discussions about the commission are already sobering him up. "I met President Barrow personally in Dakar in January," he says. Since Jammeh still refused to leave the country on January 19, his successor was sworn in without further ado in Senegal. Since then, however, the new head of state has not been heard from again, Mbaye complains.

This and many other articles were made possible by financial support from the Foreign Research Fund.

Linked to this is something else: The government wants to compensate the victims, for example through disability pensions and scholarships for children whose parents were murdered. Mbaye, 34, shrugs his shoulders: "Whether I’ll get compensation someday or not, I don’t know." Nevertheless, it could help him fulfill a second wish: "I’d like to study law, become a lawyer and ensure justice."

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