‘Disappeared’ loved ones still haunt Gambian families

Removal of strongman Yayha Jammeh has not resolved questions about fate of some of those in his jails


Jammeh lost election but claims the polls were tainted with “unacceptable irregularities” and refused to step down. He was later persuaded by the ECOWAS mediators led by Guinea’s Alpha Conde. He now lives in exile in Equatorial Guinea


The downfall of Gambia’s strongman Yahya Jammeh has been widely greeted with euphoria in the tiny west African state.

However, his departure and an amnesty for those imprisoned during his 22-year rule have confirmed the worst fears of some of the families of the jailed.

“When I heard that they were releasing people, I told my son to go and look for his dad but we have not heard anything,” Sira Sanyang, 48, told The Torch. “We have not seen him in any of the places we have visited.”

Her husband Bubacarr was picked up on the streets of his home town Bwiam, a small town in southwestern Gambia, by unidentified security agents 10 years ago. There has been no word from him since.

Sira said her husband was walking to the local shop when a group of men forced him into a car and sped off.

“They arrested three people here on that day… I have never heard a word from him since,” she said. “We have eight children and they are still here with me… I am the one now feeding the family… I have difficulty taking care of the family and paying school fees after he was taken away.”

Sira said the family “cried for weeks” after Bubacarr’s disappearance. “He left a five-year-old child with me who often asks ‘Where is my father?’… I would always tell him he has travelled and will come back soon.”

Jammeh’s reign came to an end last week when he was forced to leave by the threat of military intervention from regional states. He had initially accepted electoral defeat last month but then backtracked and said he would contest Adama Barrow’s victory.

Journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh, 37, has been missing since 2006. Six days after the amnesty for those held illegally was declared by Barrow, his sister Adama Manneh has not found any trace of him.

Consistent torture

“I have gone to the police station to inform them about my brother’s case but I have not still heard anything,” she said.

According to the U.S.-based Freedom Now, the senior reporter for the Daily Observer was arrested by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), probably for trying to republish a BBC News article that traced Jammeh’s rise to power in a 1994 coup. The group said he suffered “grave health problems”.

Such stories have been common in Gambia under Jammeh’s rule. Common enough for the opposition newspaper Foroyaa to run regular Detention Without Trial, Disappearance Without Trace articles.

Rights groups have accused Jammeh, who had claimed to have derived his mandate from God and bragged of being able to cure HIV/AIDS, of serious abuses.

Human Rights Watch accused the authorities of “routinely target voices of dissent, including journalists, human rights defenders, political opponents and critics, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.”

It said methods of torture included severe beatings, slicing with bayonets, near suffocation by plastic bag, electrocution and dripping melted plastic onto the skin.

The group added: “Many victims were subjected to psychological abuse such as prolonged periods in solitary confinement, mock execution and repeated threats of torture and death.”

According to UN special rapporteurs who visited the country in 2014 “torture is a consistent practice” by authorities and “avoiding arrest is a necessary preoccupation” for ordinary people.

Those who have been found following detention incommunicado are considered lucky.

Alhagi Ousman Sawaneh, a 65-year-old imam from Kanifing, a suburb of Serrekunda, a city to the west of capital Banjul, was found following the amnesty. He had been held since October 2015 despite a court ordering his release last March.

Notorious prison

“My daughter died while I was in prison… I heard about it from a new inmate who was brought in our prison,” he said. “But I only came to know her cause of death when I got home.”

Sawaneh was held at the notorious Janjanbureh prison around 300 kilometers (185 miles) from Banjul. He was thought to have been arrested for signing a petition calling for the release of another victim of illegal detention.

He was not tortured but others, such as Sanusi Sanyang, 39, from Jeshwang, another neighborhood of Serrekunda, suffered physical abuse during their incarceration.

Sanyang, a painter, was arrested by the NIA last April after he was accused of insulting NIA head Yankuba Badjie.

“I was taken to where they called Bamba Dinka,” he told The Torch. “It is a small room that gets dark at 5pm… I was sleeping on the floor for 28 days but the length of my detention took nine months without a single court appearance.

“I told them to take me to court if I have committed a crime and they have asked me to keep quiet.” Sanyang was reluctant to talk about the torture he suffered while being held in solitary confinement.

After decades of misrule, Barrow’s government has said it wants to address the alleged abuses of the past and Barrow has spoken of establishing a reconciliation commission to investigate possible crimes committed by Jammeh.

“We want all those in detention centers to be freed from detention without trial,” presidential spokesman Halifa Sallah said. “Investigations will be done on those who arrested them, what happened, so that a follow-up can be done as to who should be responsible for the disappearance.

“Compensation will be given to those who deserve to be compensated… That is part of the healing process which is the objective of the truth and reconciliation commission.”


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