GAMBIA 15 YEARS AFTER 14 STUDENTS ARE KILLED BY SECURITY AGENTS; IMPUNITY CONTINUES

Gambia marks its 50 yearsof independence this year but 15 years ago, when the country was 35, some ofher children paid a heavy prize when they stood up on April 10th-11th to say noto impunity. I wrote the piece below in 2013. It took me 13 years to put that fateful day in writing.

Gambia 2000-2015: “With REPRESSION established as a standard feature, FEAR has become my shadow,” AiDa.

“It ended with a Commissionof Inquiry, with the state culprits given a blanket amnesty. It ended there, the last roars of innocent and angry children, dead, maimed, sexually abused……it ended…..with a sickening silence for some, an appeasement for others, a lingering suspicion for many …15 years on…..we still remember:”

Read full below (I added info from Gainako.com on cause of death):

“Gambia: April 10, 2000- I remember…15 years on”

“It ended with a Commission of Inquiry, with the state culprits given a blanket amnesty. It ended there, the last roars of angry and innocent children, dead, maimed, sexually abused……it ended…..with a sickening silence for some, an appeasement for others, a lingering suspicion for many …13 years on…..we still remember.”

It started at GTTI around 8am.

I was wearing a long beige dress with white dots. I carried four heavy English books, heading to GTTI for my morning English class. We were stopped at Westfield and no car could proceed. Students wearing uniforms got off the GPTC public buses as traffic came to a halt around GTTI as protesting students shouted and punctured the air with their angry protest slogans.

Despite the hiccups, I was still determined to get to GTTI, I wanted to get there and I did not know why. Maybe it was all down to curiosity. The Westfield to GTTI highway was peopled by swarming hordes of students and they were in no charitable mood. They screamed their anger, bellowed out insults directed at the authorities. Their bone of contention was justice for two students, a boy named Ebrima Barry who died after being tortured by Gambian firefighters, the other a young girl raped by security officer.

As I walked slowly towards my intended destination, some students who had worked themselves into a frenzy, began attacking GPTC buses as they reacted to a determination by the security forces to clear the streets of marauding youths. In fact news had reached us early on that Vice President Isatou Njie Saidy as the stand-in leader in the absence of the president who was abroad had ordered security officers to head to the GTTI flashpoint and restrain the students from staging what was intended as a peaceful protest. The police had earlier refused the students a permit to hold their peaceful march.

I did not see any fear in their eyes. They had simply lost it to anger and frustration. A boy donning Gambia High School uniforms underlined this newfound release from the clutches of anxiety by an inscription on the tarred road which read “We are ready to DIE”.

I never reached GTTI. The farthest I went was the Musa Njie&Sons Gas shop. By then, things had worsened as the violence culminated in running battles between the anti-riot police and the marauding youths. The latter had organised themselves into small groups to confront the jackboots of the state with rocks before retreating to muster more rage, numbers and missiles.

The faceoff was an uneven battle with students armed with only stones on one side and security forces using what the government version of events claimed were rubber bullets (the official account claimed students were armed with guns) on the other. It was a scene reminiscent of a distant but all too familiar scene of the Palestinian intifada I have been horrified to watch on TV over and over again. It was a stop-start affair until heavily armed soldiers descended on them without any sense of restraint and unleashed terror on any uniformed being on sight and within reach.

In their desperation to deal with a situation they were ill-prepared to handle, anybody wearing anything resembling a uniform and carrying anything close to a schoolbag were rounded up with brute force.

Some among the students able to scamper to the relative safety of the few residential homes around the GTTI trouble spot, at the heart of the industrial zone had to change into ordinary clothes. But even this did not stop the charge on them.

How security agents came to know that the students were changing from their uniforms to ordinary garbs fuelled suspicion that some intelligence operatives may have infiltrated their’ ranks and betrayed them to their armed pursuers.

Around 10-11am, some disgruntled Gambians who had little to do with the reasons for the students’ show of outrage joined the fray. That’s when things started to turn really nasty as looting and burning aggravated an already serious atmosphere of carnage.

All along, my hands were laboring under the weight of my heavy books, my movements hampered by my ill-timed choice of clothing, a long dress and high heels. My determination suddenly buckled under the heart-rending sight of the carnage as guns clashed with stones and left flesh and blood strewn on the streets. The human instinct in me revolted by the spectacle, forced me to head back to Westfield as I began hot-footing it home. Just halfway through, I spent more than 30 minutes around the vicinity of the Red Cross headquarters. There men and boys on one side threw stones while security officers (I refer to them as security because I cannot recall if they were soldiers or paramilitary although I could tell they were dressed in plain green) were few meters from me firing teargas canisters and “rubber” bullets.

What angered me was not only that the security forces were handling the protesters with unrestrained brutality. I was riled by the fact that one of them was filming the skirmishes, as a movie director would, taking one-sided shots showing the opposite side and never once brought his camera to focus on the activities of the soldiers.

People were busy throwing stones and disappearing in nearby houses around Westfield. When the stone-throwers got tired of this, soldiers moved towards the Serrekunda market in hot pursuit. There some kind of stability had prevailed as I continued my walk. I walked past the small Gamtel outpost straddling the Westfield junction on Kairaba Avenue. It was spared the fury of the skirmish and wasn’t torched yet. I saw students in almost all the streets I passed, with curious onlookers watching the disorderly scenes as they unfolded in their eyes.

As I walked along Kairaba Avenue, the protest took a violent turn for the worst as information got round that some people had been killed in cold blood. When I reached the GRTS offices, scenes of looting were already overwhelming the Kanifing post office. A paramilitary hapless enough to be left behind by his comrade got the beating of his life. I felt sorry for him, despite the angry feeling towards those of his kind. I was angry that thir response was totally out of proportion to the protest and no one to talk sense into them. There was an element of inevitability about the whole situation.

There were broken glasses all along the avenue and I avoided this chaotic littering by walking in the middle, ( I had no idea why) and not on the pathway reserved for pedestrians. Nonetheless I could not get away from the destruction. My long dress got caught by small pieces of broken glasses. But I kept walking even though my legs were left bruised by the experience. Holding the long dress up, I still carried the heavy books, and hand bag and negotiated the road with my high heel shoes. They were all an assortment of burdensome things, inappropriate to carry on so ill-fated a day.

I felt so tired, the sun being very hot and quickly sapped the energy out of me as the environment around me taxed the emotions out of me. I was left regretting why I had to carry those books.

I knew the turn of events that day was going to be “bloody”. Then student leader Omar Joof, was in that English class I was to attend. Maybe I wanted to test fate.

Waking up that morning I had entertained some thoughts encouraging me to stay in the safety of my home but I didn’t. I chose to go but didn’t dress appropriately. While having my breakfast, I knew something amiss was about to happen, although I wouldn’t in my wildest suspicion feel it was degenerate to blood and tears. I had to live by mum’s rule which was that no one should ever leave the house without eating breakfast.

When I reached Radio One FM, the owner Uncle George Christensen (he was my mum’s good childhood friend) was standing in front of his house with some relatives and friends watching events unfold. An army truck was parked not far from where the Africell building is now located. It was crammed with young men, boys and even girls arrested. Uncle George and a woman he was standing with protested that the soldiers should not take away the girls, one of whom came to grief, crying and shaking like a leaf after she was thrown aboard the vehicle like a useless bundle. The soldiers it must be said were the picture of ruthless inhumanity. They betrayed no sympathetic emotions. They didn’t give a hoot. However, the clamouring for the girls release came to a head as more people joined in the protestation, demanding the girls to be released to avoid them risking sexual abuse.

Few years previously, some girls were reportedly abused sexually while under arrest after the government had forbidden “beach parties” after inter-house school sporting events. The incidents had occurred after troops had raided the beach arresting many, some of them girls.

Back to the present! I continued walking. It was calmer after Radio One, although evidence of earlier scenes connected to the protests like shattered glasses on roadsides, spent stones, cement, sand, were everywhere.

As I took the final bend and walked slowly home, I felt my chest heave up with anger that such carnage could happen in The Gambia of all countries. At that point I let my dress down. There was no need to pull it up. I no longer thought about it. I was now completely away from the scenes of desolation and despair. It was like my spirit watching my body walk, suffering under the oppressive heat of the scorching Gambian sun – my legs bruised and wobbly. I was like a robot, I moved but felt lifeless. By then I no longer felt the heaviness of the books and the long walk I took from GTTI to Fajara.

When I got home, there was an uneasy quiet about my neighborhood I did not like. It was eerily connected to the bloody struggles I had witnessed between students who felt genuinely aggrieved and the security personnel blind in the execution of their orders from above.

I didn’t hear the birds sing under the big trees along the avenue. Everything was silent, everyone was locked up in their homes. Going past the gate, the first thing I recognized was the sign of profound relief on my mother’s face. She had spent the whole morning on frayed nerves, anxiously waiting for news and living proofs of her children returning to her in peace of body and mind.

I thought about those mums and families that waited in vain that day, not knowing where their children were or whether they were even dead or alive. I cried in my brothers’ arms. In fact I could not help my screaming insults at those I held responsible for the incident. I was pained, in fact devastated that the security officers who are meant to protect us youths could be so ruthless and uncaring to our plight.

As long as I could remember in my life, that was the first time I understood what the meaning of despair was. I asked myself how people could let this happen and how God in all his merciful tolerance watched things unfold the way they did that day.

It was time to follow happenings on the radio and so we gathered around the radio. It was Radio One FM, which was airing a show about what happened. A government official came to the radio to lambaste the students saying “they had killed each other”. I was burning with a sense of hate for those who would do anything to crucify the students for everything that had happened, even their own deaths.

The following day, the protest reached the countryside, where students launched their own protests which were also repressed with the same brute force. That day parents whose children did not come back home did the round of police stations and mortuaries. I remember parents camping outside Fajara police station (Kombo station) to see if their children were holed up there. I heard warning shots being fired for some reason. I was angry they didn’t muster the courage to fight for their children. There was something wrong with letting the students fight for justice themselves.

It was just six years under President Jammeh’s rule and many had started feeling the burden of repression and restrictive climate. All of a sudden the new government’s prescriptive TPA mantra “Transparency, Accountability and Probity” were no longer finding any echo. They were fading whispers. That was how frustrated I felt.

Later “Ousman Sonko, Therese Ndong Jatta and Isatou Njie Saidy blamed the students for their indiscipline and for the deaths.” For years I thought that I hated these three for that statement, I only saw negative connotations in whatever they did. Now, I am no longer consumed by hate. It has drained me emotionally while it lasted. I have lost that. But I haven’t forgotten. I have been civil around them except for the VP who I have never met.

To this day I have the feeling that I sailed through what came to be known as April10. It seemed like a dream, walking around and not being seen by anyone – not stopped by anyone. I never really talked about it, but my heart remains heavy whenever I remember. However small this experience is, i was there and I witnessed what happened.

It ended with a Commission of Inquiry, with the state culprits given a blanket amnesty. It ended there, the last roars of innocent and angry children, dead, maimed, sexually abused……it ended…..with a sickening silence for some, an appeasement for others, a lingering suspicion for many …15 years on…..we still remember:

Abdoulie Sanyang, of Old Jeshwang died from a stampede and his death was an accident

Bubacarr Badjie, a student, aged 10, died of gunshot wounds from a high-velocity weapon

Wuyeh Fode Mansally, a student of Talinding Islamic Institute, died of gunshot wounds

Momodou Lamin Njie, a GTTI student, died of gunshot wounds

Calisco Prera, a resident of New Jeshwang, died of gunshot wounds

Karamo Barrow, a former student of the Institute for Continuing Education, died of gunshot wounds.

Reginald Carrol, a student of La Fourmi Institute, Kanifing, died of gunshot wounds

Omar Barrow, journalist and Gambia Red Cross volunteer, died of gunshot wounds

Momodou Lamin Chune, student of Latrikunda Middle School, died of gunshot wounds

Lamin A. Bojang, student of Nusrat Senior Secondary School, died of gunshot wounds

Ousman Sabally, student of Brikamaba Upper Basic School, died of gunshot wounds

Ousman Sembene, died of gunshot wounds

Bakary Njie, died of gunshot wounds

Sainey Nyabally, died of gunshot wounds

PS: The only person I knew out of the lot was Omar Barrow, a Red Cross Volunteer and journalist with Sud

FM radio in Banjul.

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