When Fatou Jatta was summoned to the presidential palace to be “cured” by Yahya Jammeh, president of the Gambia at the time, she knew that declining the invitation was not an option.
Jammeh had convinced himself that, by mixing herbs and other mysterious substances with milk, he could cure people of HIV. He wanted some human guinea pigs on whom to try out his “treatment”.
The environment of fear created over Jammeh’s 22 years in power meant that everybody – including his health minister, who was a doctor – ensured the president got what he wanted.
Induced to cede power last year after losing a historic election to a coalition of opposition parties, Jammeh is now in exile in Equatorial Guinea while Gambians reckon with the trauma he left behind.
The head of the nascent truth, reconciliation and reparations commission (TRRC) estimates there are 150,000 victims waiting to tell their stories.
Jatta was HIV positive but healthy when she arrived at State House in January 2007. She and eight other “patients” watched as their president, dressed in his trademark white robes, prepared a strange mixture.
“He started administering his concoction. That was the first day I ever drank black medicine,” she said. “When I drank it, my system changed. I was put on a stretcher, and a camera was on me throughout.”
It was the beginning of a nine-month televised ordeal. Jatta was effectively imprisoned, not allowed to contact her family or employer. Her two-year-old son was also forced to drink Jammeh’s potion.
“He’d cry, and the soldiers would hold him down and make him take it,” Jatta said. “If you vomited, you’d have to drink it again.”
Far sicker than when she began the treatment, Jatta emerged to find she had lost her job – while others, denied antiretroviral treatment by the president, died.
They were just one small group of Jammeh’s victims, who are everywhere in the Gambia. Executions, imprisonment, torture and rape were the hallmarks of his rule.
Amadou Sanneh was made finance minister two days after he was released from the country’s most notorious jail after a three-year stretch. In an interview about the economy in his new office near the headquarters of the national intelligence agency, the kindly, greying accountant talked first about debt and then about the severe beatings he had undergone.
“When you’re there, midnight, the doors open. They enter, torture,” he said. “The prison was terrible. So many people died in my presence because of the poor food given to them. The prison director was terrible. He enjoyed the beating. They were the law. That place was a torture camp.”
Details of how Jammeh’s officers operated are emerging in the high-profile trial of the alleged killers of Solo Sandeng, an activist whose death set off a chain of events that led to Jammeh’s downfall. Most though, will have to wait for the TRRC to begin for their stories to be heard.
“We are under a lot of pressure, particularly from the victims, to ensure that there is accountability for the abuses of the past 22 years,” said Ba Tambadou, the country’s justice minister.
Worldwide, truth and reconciliation commissions have met with varying success. The head of the Gambia’s commission, historian Baba Galleh Jallow, is studying them, trying to avoid the pitfalls. Some have been political stunts; others have been subject to interference or suppression by politicians.
A former journalist who fled to the US but had to leave his family behind, Galleh Jallow lived in exile for 17 years. Now he has to win over former Jammeh loyalists to the process.
“I will never testify. I don’t believe in this formalised copycat process. We didn’t have war here, we didn’t have ethnic cleansing,” said Momodou Sabally, a Jammeh-era civil service chief, while relaxing at his Banjul hangout, the Attaya café.
Galleh Jallow’s ambition is not just to expose what happened under Jammeh, but to dictator-proof the Gambia by building a national identity that goes beyond politics or tribal affiliation.
“We have a unique situation here,” he said. “Some of the perpetrators are close relatives to the victims. That’s a context you might not find in other countries.”
“I’m thinking reconciliation in a very broad sense,” he said. He is planning to hold meetings across the country to educate Gambians about their rights and duties as citizens. If Gambians were enlightened in 1994, Jammeh couldn’t have been a dictator. And he got more brutal as time went on.
“What we all want is to create a cohesive and healthy nation. We’re thinking big, very big. This could be an instrument for the transformation of politics.”
He said the aim of the TRRC is to “gather hard evidence to be able to prosecute Jammeh. This whole process is leading to that” – and preferably at the international criminal court.
“We hope to provide cattle for people whose animals were seized by the former president. We hope to provide capital money for businessmen and women who have been thrown in jail and whose businesses have been ruined as a result.”
This will be impossible with the money available: the government has pledged $100,000 (£73,662) and, so far, the UN has made available $1.4m, a fraction of the $50m needed for running costs and paying reparations. The commission should have been launched in April; a June start date now looks more likely, while the Gambia scrambles to raise more money.
“The TRRC has an expensive budget,” said Sanneh, the finance minister. “If we are to do that out of our normal budgetary process, nobody else will have something. We are seeking support from partners to help finance the TRRC. There are so many victims.”
Thrown straight into politics and trying to shore up the economy Jammeh hollowed out, Sanneh has had little time to draw breath. “I have not had any holiday. Even at weekends, I am occupied. I need good sleep. Maybe in my village.”
Few have had the time or opportunity to step back and look after their mental health. At the centre for victims of human rights violations set up last year, hundreds of people are coming through the door seeking help. But the money is running out fast, and the one psychotherapist there can only see a fraction of them.
“It’s trauma over trauma over trauma,” said Silvia Jawneh, though she added that her patients were reacting so well to therapy that, if the money could be raised, a year or two of work could be enough to treat all of them.
“It’s very important to carry on. We’ve only just started. We cannot start a new Gambia without caring for those who suffered,” she said.
For Jatta, the HIV-positive woman who now works at the victims’ centre, hearing others’ stories is a form of therapy. She remembers Jammeh’s last words to her before finally letting her go.
“He said: ‘If you test for HIV and you have it, I’ll know you’ve been infected again. If I hear of it, I’ll lock you up.’ He thought he was God, while he was just a mere human being like us.”
Jatta is still not safe. After speaking out about her ordeal on television, a stranger forced his way into her house one night and threatened her. Still, she will not be deterred from seeking justice.
“We were silently tortured,” she said. “We want to see justice prevail.”
Source: The Guardian Newspaper