The tiny West African republic, The Gambia, is a popular winter-sun holiday destination for Europeans. However, most tourists have little idea of the dark and shattered underbelly of ‘The Smiling Coast of Africa’, as the Gambia is fondly called. From 1994 -2017 President Yahya Jammeh ruled the Gambia as his fiefdom, crushing dissent, and opposition with brutality. His personal hit squad and National Intelligence Agency carried out tortures, assassinations, and acts of sexual violence with impunity – journalists were gunned down and disappeared, students shot in cold blood, and even his cousins were murdered on his order.
In October 2018 The Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) launched in The Gambia – a televised commission investigating the human rights violations under the 22-year dictatorial rule of President Yahya Jammeh. The TRRC, suspended over the past couple of months due to COVID19, will resume today, Monday 8th June 2020, hearing testimonies from the victims and survivors of Jammeh’s rule, along with those of the alleged perpetrators. It is a long, and extremely painful process for many, to finally have their voices heard, but also to see and hear the voices of those who are implicated in meting out shocking tortures, killings, and human rights abuses, and about what happened to their loved ones.
For over three years, we have been collaborating closely with the Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations, and the TRRC; and have created permanent and mobile exhibitions of the portraits and testimonies. The exhibitions have now become part of Victims Centre and TRRC outreach work around the country, to bring the stories of victims to the people, to create dialogue and discussion around human rights and justice in this fledgling democracy – in hopes of opening eyes and winning hearts and minds. And, we will continue making the portraits and filming testimonies once flights to Gambia resume after the lockdown.
StoriesBehindDoors: The Gambia – In remembrance of the victims, and survivors of a massacre: 10 April 2000 – Modou Lamin Chune, 14 years old, was one of 16 young people shot dead by Gambian paramilitary forces (over two days, 10th and 11th April) when they opened fire on a peaceful demonstration by students. At first, rubber bullets and tear gas was used. When the students refused to disperse, these were replaced by live bullets
“My son was amongst the children massacred by Yahya Jammeh’s security forces… he was trying to escape, running with the other students to save their lives, and he was shot dead as he reached the school gates” Mbye Babou Chune
“Green Boys and magicians came around the village, singing, drumming, and dancing, and targeted NRP (UDP) opposition party members” Doudou Sanyang
The Witch Hunts of 2009 – The Gambia. Dodou Sanyang, in the room of his recently deceased mother, Naa Joni Sonko. She was one of over a thousand elderly people abducted on the order of the former president, Yahya Jammeh. Groups of Jammeh’s paramilitary troops along with his youth brigade, The Green Boys, and ‘magicians’ from Guinea, went from village to village as part of a nationwide hunt for witches.
The alleged witches were held for up to five days in secret locations and made to drink ‘Kubehjaro’, a hallucinogenic substance, and then forced to confess to witchcraft. Some were also severely beaten, and robbed by their captors. Some died at the detention sites, and others like Sanyang’s mother suffered years of illness before dying. Many in Sanyang’s village believe the elderly there were not targeted for witchcraft, but because the village had been an opposition stronghold – Essau, Northbank Division, The Gambia.
“I was kept for five days. When they forced me to take the medicine (‘Kubehjaro’ a hallucinogenic substance), I could no longer stand up… I fell down on the ground… ” Sankung Balajo