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ConflictsThe Gambia

Gambia: The story of a Jammeh-era survivor

October 2, 2021

The West African country's decision to delay a long-awaited report into the crimes committed under longtime leader Yahya Jammeh comes as families torn apart by the brutal regime struggle to heal decades on.

A man holds a sign with the name of his relative killed during a coup attempt in The Gambia
Many Gambian families are still reeling from the trauma of the death of their loved ones during the regime of Yahya JammehImage: Mustapha K Darboe/AA/picture alliance

When Awa Njie married her late husband, Don Faal, in February 1994, she could hardly imagine the cruel fate that would befall her young family at the hands of her country's regime.

The couple met in her hometown of Farafefeeni, about 120 kilometers (70 miles) north of Gambia's capital, Banjul. At the time, Faal was stationed at an army barracks next door to Awa's house, separated by only a fence. They welcomed their first and only child a few months after their wedding.

But their lives changed after the July 1994 coup led by then Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh.

Faal was redeployed to the Fajara Barracks. Four months later in November, he and five other senior army officials were accused of attempting to overthrow Jammeh's new military regime.

Njie says her husband came home as normal on November 10. He didn't tell her that he had just been sentenced to death for his supposed crime.

Members of the Gambia Armed Forces stepping off a bus
Members of the Gambia Armed Forces are now being accused of horrific crimes during the years under JammehImage: DW/O. Wally

"He would go to the door, then come back again, pick up his child from their bed, hug them and stand there looking at me," she told DW. "He did this three times before he left."

Faal never returned. On the night of November 11, 1994, he and the five other officers were executed.

At first, Njie had no idea that her husband had been killed. She went out looking for him in the morning after hearing gunshots. But she would only learn the tragic truth of his death days later.

"A police officer who worked with him called and asked: 'Are you Awa?'" Njie said. "I said yes. 'The wife of the late Don Faal?' I said, 'Late, why late?' He said: 'Awa, take heart, your husband was killed.' I fainted."

Former ministers in Jammeh's government, Edward Signateh (center) and Sana Sabally (right) testify at the Truth, Reconcilliation and Reparations Commission in 2019
Former ministers in Jammeh's government, Edward Signateh (center) and Sana Sabally (right) testify at the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission in 2019Image: TRRC

A horrific death

Njie said the manner of her husband's death still haunted her today.

"They stabbed him, they shot him," Njie said. "How they killed him was terrifying. That trauma has never left me."

To make matters worse, Njie and her 8-month-old baby were repeatedly harassed after Faal's execution, forcing her to flee to neighboring Senegal. She only came home six months later.

Her son, now 27 years old, didn't know what happened to his father until Njie testified at Gambia's Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) in 2019, a probe into crimes committed under Jammeh's rule. During the hearings, some of her husband's killers admitted to their role in his murder.

A man holds a banner that reads "Game over Jammeh" as Gambians cheer in Serrekunda
Many Gambians welcomed the exile of former ruler Yahya Jammeh, but they are still awaiting justice for the crimes committed under his ruleImage: picture-alliance/AP/J. Delay

Njie said her son was angry and often spoke of avenging his father's death. As the family's sole provider, Njie lost her teaching job shortly after Faal's death, leading to her son being unable to complete his secondary education.

To survive, Njie relies on petty trading. She still imagines what her life might have been like if her husband wasn't killed.

"By now I would have my own compound," she said. "Maybe it wouldn't be luxurious, but I would be fine. I would have my own job, and maybe I would have had other children with him."

Untold tragedies come to light

Njie never remarried and still clings to the good memories of her husband.

"He was the best," she said. "I lost a loving husband, a caring husband that I will never get in my life again."

Stories like Njie's are sadly common in Gambia. Victims of torture and the relatives of those who were killed or disappeared are still waiting for justice as the TRRC prepares to release its report following testimonies from nearly 400 people.

Based on South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the TRRC was set up in 2017 after Jammeh lost the 2016 election to Adama Barrow.

Witnesses began giving evidence in 2019, detailing Jammeh's use of torture and rape and witch hunts at the hands of the so-called Junglers, a paramilitary group that acted as a death squad.

Yahya Jammeh wears a white hat and high collar as he looks into the camera
Former President Yahya Jammeh is currently in exile in Equatorial GuineaImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay

Delayed justice

The official final report, spanning 16 volumes, was expected in July. However, it will now be released at an unconfirmed later date, with a member of the TRRC saying "we are not yet ready."

The TRRC has no power to prosecute. However, it can recommend prosecution for individuals identified as perpetrators or propose amnesty for people who have testified and expressed remorse over their crimes.

The government has six months to respond to the recommendations once the report is released. Barrow says he will wait to see the contents of the report before seeking any further action against Jammeh, who is currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

Sankulleh Janko contributed to this report.