Abdoulie J Darboe, 47, is a former lance corporal in the Gambia National Army. The native of Pakaliba, Jarra, joined the military in 1991 three years before a young band of middle-ranking soldiers led by Lt Yahya Jammeh overthrew the 30-year housekeeping democracy of Alhaji Dawda Jawara. In this edition of Bantaba, The Standard’s Omar Bah talked to Darboe about The Gambia’s ‘Day of Infamy’ – November 11th 1994 –, his life as a soldier and the New Gambia.
How was life in the military before 1994?
The military then was more free and peaceful because if you did what was expected of you, nothing happened to you. But in the Jammeh’s regime the army was too fragile because it was only one man who gave the orders. This man was Jammeh himself.
1994 found you in the army, what role if any, did you play in connection with the July 22 coup d’etat?
I prepared Sana Sabally’s gate pass from Farafenni to Banjul, because I was there with him, Yankuba Touray and others. I can remember on the 19 of July 1994, Yankuba Touray came to me and asked me to prepare the gate pass for Sana Sabally. I told him Sana must apply before he could be given a pass. But Yankuba Touray told me I must prepare it and that he would sign and then we would talk later.
What happened next?
On the 21st of July, the then army commander, Samsudeen Sarr, called me and asked for Sana because he saw him in Banjul and was wondering what he was doing there. That’s the time I informed him that Sana was given permission to travel to the Kombos on the instructions of Yankuba Touray.
What happened after that phone call?
After speaking to me, Commander Sarr immediately ordered for my interrogation alongside Yankuba Touray for giving the gate pass to Sana Sabally because he said we were not the right authorities responsible for that. I was charged the very Friday of the coup before a Nigerian chief instructor although I was supposed to face Abdoulie Conteh, who became the mayor of Kanifing municipality, the chief instructor then, but the Nigerians believed that he was not going to give me a fair trial.
Before they could proceed with my interrogation, I received a call from Samsudeen Sarr and he asked me to pass the phone to my camp commander but I told him the commander was in Banjul but the Regimental Sergeant Major was around. So, I handed the phone to the RSM who had a brief discussion with him. Immediately after their discussion, the RSM called all the soldiers to assemble for a briefing on the latest situation in the country. That was the time I knew these people had successfully taken over the country from Sir Dawda Jawara. Immediately after the coup, some of the soldiers were redeployed to various camps but I remained in Farafenni because I was then the administrative secretary at the barracks.
What was the state of affairs in the days after the 22 July takeover?
Uncertainty. People knew Yahya and Sana in the army and it was obvious that if these two disgruntled soldiers were the leaders of this nation, you expect people to start crying from the beginning.
Were you confident that they were going to step down after the two-year transition period?
I believed that but that dream faded on November 11th 1994 when they held a meeting at Fajara Barracks which was centred on whether they should stick to the two-year transition or not. At that meeting, they could not agree on anything because Sana Sabally was insisting that they had to step down after the two years but Jammeh, Edward Singhatey and others were in favour of clinching onto power. When the meeting was rescheduled to 9 o’clock at Yundum Barracks, [Lieutenant] LF Jammeh asked me to type the agenda of the meeting for him and also asked me to accompany him to the meeting.
What happened at the meeting that night?
There was no meeting because upon our arrival at the gate, they started shooting at us from all angles. When things started getting out of hand, LF Jammeh opened the door [of the vehicle we where in] and asked us to run but I told him I was not going anywhere because I had not done anything wrong. He started running towards the airport and they chased him and shot at him but he was lucky to escape alongside ‘Sir Jackal’ and Sergeant Sori Jadama. For Lieutenant Minteh and Jarju, I didn’t know their whereabouts. All I can say is that they escaped within Yundum Barracks.
What happened to you?
I was arrested from the vehicle with Basiru Barrow, Lieutenant Abdoulie Bah, Dot Faal and others and we were immediately accused of trying to fuel a coup, which was never true.
What did they do to you after arresting you?
They immediately took us to Mile 2 and then to Fajara Barracks. When we arrived at Fajara that very night we were paraded naked in front of armed soldiers for them to shoot at us. I can still remember Vice Chairman Sana Sabally was the one giving the commands and after his count of three, they started shooting at us. That’s how they killed Lieutenant Abdoulie Bah and others on the spot.
How come you weren’t killed like Lt Bah and others?
God, hmmmm, I was lucky to survive alongside one private soldier Mafugi Sonko and Basiru Barrow who were both seriously wounded.
Do you know the identities of those shooting at you night?
Of course, yes, some of them have travelled [abroad] but some are still [serving] in the Army, Immigration, Police and other departments of government.
How did it feel to witness the killing of your fellow soldiers in those circumstances?
Terrible, that is why I cannot still keep quiet because I believe even if [we had plotted] a coup, they should have taken us to court for the court to decide on our fate. Nobody deserves to die the way my fellow soldiers were killed that night. You would not believe it; they subjected us to serious torture before shooting at us. It was during that torture that they broke Basiru Barrow’s neck.
Exactly who were killed that night?
It was in two sections; some were arrested in the night while others were arrested the following morning. I can still recall on November 11, Abdoulie Bah, Faal and others… I cannot remember all their names but these two were part of the ones killed.
What drama was played out the following morning?
Early the following morning at the Fajara Barracks, Sana Sabally asked his men to transfer us to the Yundum Barracks. They put us inside the truck and immediately when we reached Yundum Barracks, Edward Singhatey wanted to throw a grenade inside the truck but he later changed his mind. Few minutes after that threat from Edward Singhatey, one soldier whom I will not name due to security reasons because he is still [serving] in the military came into the truck and started asking whether we were still alive. He requested for a gun and shot both Basiru Barrow and Faal and then put his torchlight on my face and then said to me, ‘mba ding’ [my relative] and then left.
What happen next?
When he left, I heard Sana Sabally asking him how many people remained alive in the truck. He told him three. Sana at that point requested for a digger and asked me to dig my own grave because I was going to be buried alive but I refused and I told him to kill me and bury me if he wanted me dead.
Do you know the spot those soldiers killed were buried?
Yes, and I can still locate the mass grave at the Yundum Barracks because everything happened in my presence.
What happened to those soldiers who escaped?
Some of them were arrested in their homes. I can still remember the likes of the late Cadet MS Sillah, Sergeant Basiru Camara and others who were later arrested.
Can you remember what happened after their arrest?
When Sana came, he instructed for them to be taken to Brikama Firing Range. That’s where they killed them and buried in a mass grave.
What thoughts were crossing your mind?
You were spared death but witnessing all the carnage around you.
My brother, with the help of God, I did not die. Could you imagine when Sana Sabally returned with his fellow soldiers after killing those soldiers they were celebrating by jumping and shouting. I heard some of them expressing how amazed they were at the way they killed those soldiers and it was terrifying because I was saying I might be killed next. What is most disheartening is that some of these killers are still [serving] in the military.
What happened to you after that?
I was taken to Mile 2 Prison with Trawally and others. I was released after 18 months without going through any trial and my service in the army was terminated.
What have you been doing for a living since?
I later joined the UDP as a security officer in 1996 to 1997 and in 1998 I returned to my village of Jarra Pakaliba where I became the UDP chairman until 2007 when I decided to stay away from politics because I was receiving constant death threats from the Jammeh administration.
Are you vindicated now that Jammeh is history?
Of course, yes, but I have not healed yet because I need justice to be done. I want to say that Gambians voted for me and my fellow victims who were continuously subjected to intimidation and torture and not President Barrow. To me Jammeh left for me because I now leave home without thinking someone would come behind me and kill me.
What are you asking from the new regime?
Justice, not only for myself but for all the victims of Jammeh including my fellow soldiers who were killed
Any final word?
I just want to thank The Standard newspaper for the good work they are doing and also return praises to the Almighty God for saving my life despite all the horrors that I went through.