November 11 is regarded as a day of infamy in the chequered history of the Second Republic. On that day in 1994, soldiers accused of plotting to overthrow the junta were believed to have been summarily executed. Many accounts of the events have been reported since in books and newspaper and radio reports as well as human rights documents. Saite Darboe, a soldier in the GNA who claimed to be an eye witness to the indescribable brutality meted out to the accused soldiers, walked into Standard offices earlier in the week and spoke to Editor Talibeh Hydara. Excerpts:
First, tell me who you are
I am Saite Darboe but back in the days at the Gambia National Army, they used to call me Corporal Darboe. My regiment number was 84GNA 11109.
When did you join the army?
I joined the Gambia National Army in 1989, intake number 14.
Many young people during the Jawara time would rather do something else than join the army. That is why the army was not large but you chose the uniform, why?
Well I joined the army because I wanted to serve my nation in that capacity. Yes, I could have done something else but I felt the army was the right place to be. Immediately I left school, I went straight to the army.
You joined the army in 1989 and five years later, Lt Yahya Jammeh led a coup that ended Jawara’s thirty-year rule. But before the ’94 coup, how was the Gambian army?
It was different. That time we were less than 800 soldiers. We were a bit handicapped because of our number and that is why the coup succeeded. It happened professionally without killings. The army was also one then; the soldiers just went for the coup and that was it.
Few months after the 1994 successful takeover, the junta was accused of summary killings of fellow soldiers in November. What actually led to that incident?
It happened on 11 November 1994 when they increased the salaries of State Guard to five hundred dalasi. Before that, for private soldiers, the basic salary was a little over four hundred dalasi. So when they increased it and left out those of us at Yundum Barracks and at Farafenni, we decided to protest against it. When the demonstration started, the AFPRC accused Basirou Barrow and others of planning a coup. It was never a coup. It was just a demonstration because we wanted our salaries increased but these people came and said there was a planned coup. It was during that time Barrow, Dot Faal, Private Darboe, LF Jammeh were all arrested. LF Jammeh later escaped and fled to Casamance. They brought Barrow and others here in Fajara Barracks, tortured them and then later killed.
How were they killed?
They were brutally killed. They tortured them and then [E.S.] allegedly] pulled out his pistol and shot Barrow both in the leg and in the chest. Barrow died on the spot but they beat Dot Faal to death. He used to have what we called ‘bulletproof’; he had jujus that stopped bullets. So they beat him until he died. [S.S., Batch, E.S.] all of them mounting [sic] him, oh no, until he died.
How about the rest?
The rest were arrested that morning; about 39 of them. That time Joof was the Military Police Commander; Captain Joof. He was originally from Ghana with Sgt Jassey. After these people were arrested, they were taken to MP for interrogation and some of them were beaten there seriously. Later came [E.S., S.S., Y.T.] and Babucarr Jatta, who was the Army commander; and they had a meeting at Officer’s Mess. After the meeting, the junta people told Babucarr Jatta that they have decided these people will be executed. Jatta told them no, you don’t have to do that. That was the moment [E.S.] took out his radio and contacted Yahya Jammeh at State House. They talked for a while and then he told them that Jammeh said they should kill all of them. That was it. They went to the cells with a list of names and started calling them out. Once you stepped out of the cell, they would tie your hands behind your back and push you in the Land Rover. And then they were driven to Nyambai Forest in Brikama where they were…….my brother, killed.
How were they killed? Shot?
They were not shot; they were stabbed with knives and butchered. Lieutenant Manneh was slaughtered and I saw it.
You went to the forest with them?
No, when their bodies were brought back I was standing there. I didn’t go to the forest. I refused brother, I couldn’t have watched that. But when they brought their dead bodies, everyone saw how they stabbed them; how they slaughter ‘Nyancho’. It was very dirty.
Tell me about the general mood at the barracks when the lifeless bodies of your fellow soldiers were brought back.
It was terrible my brother. I felt like joining them at that very moment. I wanted to die and join them because they didn’t deserve that. They didn’t deserve to be killed like that. No, I was very unhappy like many others at the barracks. After that, they went to the cell again and called out Couple Basirou Camara and Sgt EM Ceesay. [S.S.] told them ‘go and join your friends behind the cook house’. The dead bodies were lying down but as they were walking, Batch pulled out a gun and shot Couple Camara and the other soldier, Mboob, shot Sgt Ceesay. They dragged them and then threw them inside a ditch. It was a very sad day.
How did they bury them?
That was not a burial. They just dumped them. That was very horrible. Three of them in one ditch: Dot Faal, Basirou Barrow and Fafa Nyang. The other nine were packed in one ditch. But the saddest thing was that Nyang was buried alive. He was originally from Ballangharr and he too had jujus. When bullets couldn’t kill him, they beat him until his waist was broken. That’s how they buried him; you could see how he was trying to force himself out before they covered him.
Where did this burial take place?
They buried them at Yundum Barracks behind the cook house.
If you are taken to the barracks, will you be able to locate these graves?
Of course, 100 per cent. In fact if they give me a spade I would dig them out myself.
So what happened after?
Well after their burial, everybody went home. Sad. Nothing happened.
You were discharged from the army few years later, what caused that?
Yes in 1999, I was discharged from the army because I had a problem with the command. That problem even reached the Office of the President. Then I was discharged.
What was this problem?
Well I was accused of keeping arms at home which was not true. I never kept any arms in my house. They went there many times to search but didn’t find anything. I was taken to the NIA for questioning but nothing. Later I was released but one morning I was called and dismissed. That time Vincent Jatta was the camp commander. They took the rank immediately from and I came with them to Bakau where I handed over all my military kits. Two weeks later, they returned with the same accusation. Then I knew that if I stayed in this country, I could be killed. That is why I left for Senegal, Mali, Algeria for three years and then, to Morocco. I was between those two countries.
What were you doing to survive while you were away?
I did a lot of things to survive. I did masonry, welding, farming, and sewing shoes. I did a lot.
During that time, were you in touch with your family back home?
Yes, I was communicating with them.
You returned even before election knowing that your life could still be in danger, why did you risk it?
I believed that after 16 years, if I return nothing will happen to me. I believed most of them wouldn’t even recognise me. Plus, I left my wife and my kid here and I felt it was time to return. No matter what. That’s what gave me courage to return. When I first came, I changed my name. Instead of Saite Darboe, I used Saikou Saho. I kept a low profile until Jammeh was defeated and then I praised God.
How does it feel?
I cannot express how I feel. I feel so happy and proud to be a Gambian. Jammeh was supposed to leave long time ago but thank God he’s finally gone. Everything will come back to normal now. Even some of my colleagues who are also in exile are planning to return. Example, I was talking to ‘Sir Jackal’, he too will soon come. He is my boss.
Who is he?
He was among those accused of coup in November 11. He escaped but later came back to attack Kartong. They didn’t succeed and then he fled to Germany.
We are now seeing some soldiers who were dismissed during Jammeh’s era returning to the army, do you wish to return as well?
Well once a soldier ever a soldier. I would want to work with them to make sure this country is secure and safe. But going back to the army? No.
I was there. I served the army for ten years and during those times, I experienced a lot. I served in the Ecomog in Liberia. I never killed but what I saw, especially November on 11 in my own country, I don’t want to put on the uniform and relive that experience. So I don’t want to go back to the army. I can go back to the security service but not the army. I can give them information, visit them and exchange ideas but I cannot become a soldier again.
Masanneh Kinteh is back as CDS, do you think the army is in good hands?
Of course, I know him well because I worked with him. He is a brave soldier and very intelligent. Let them give him chance and he will sort out everything.
Finally, if in the future Jammeh or any member of the junta is put on trial, will you testify against him?
One hundred per cent! I will stand in the court and testify against them. No doubt about that. They need to answer for their crimes. I have nothing to fear.
Thank you Darboe for speaking to The Standard.
Editor’s note: Due to the nature of allegations made by Mr Darboe, we have redacted certain names.
By Talibeh Hydara