Out of nowhere came the sound of a siren. At first, it was hard to tell from which direction. But from the distance, the siren could be heard. It was faint, and for its apparent inexplicable purpose, we paid no attention to it. We – a bunch of little kids – kept on our ritual after-breakfast, mid-morning football game under those time-honoured mango trees by the famous Basse High Level Football Field. But the siren kept blaring, and before long, its close proximity would compel us out of our heedlessness. As the sound reached its crescendo and made its way to the center of town, we suspected this was unlike any other siren we had heard before. It certainly wasn’t that of the Basse Health Centre ambulance transporting a patient, pell-mell, to the Bansang Hospital. The rapidity of the ambulance would have long drowned out the siren noise. But this one had a crawling, endless beat to it. It was unusual.
So we dashed off to the main road that cuts through Basse’s business center on that eventful day of 1 August 1981. We wanted to see what was happening. There, a throng of people had already gathered, lining up the road. We melted into the crowd, and watched as a convoy of Senegalese military trucks pass through town. The siren was mounted atop what looked like an army jeep. It was leading the convoy. The trucks, in close proximity, followed one another in neat procession. One, two, three …, I was keeping count. It must have been ten or more of them. My memory is fuzzy on the total tally.
The trucks formed a long chain. Their movement was glacial. Perhaps, the narrowness of the road warranted a snail’s speed. Or perhaps, it was a display of professionalism for the invading soldiers to not rumble their behemoths through the center of town as an apprehensive crowd teemed up both sides of the road. I looked at the passing convoy, my sights aiming for equilibrium with the commanding altitudes of the cruising trucks. Each had a capacity-load of soldiers. Each soldier had a gun, resting between his hands and laps. The guns were aimless. The soldiers didn’t look like they were in a combat mode, ready to pop at the crack of a sound. They sat in rows inside their trucks, their faces bearing down at us. Their stares, like those of medieval bodyguards, had an unmistakable stiffness to them. They said nothing; or if they did at all, it was barely above a whisper. Their taciturnity was perhaps an outgrowth of their predicament. The soldiers were en route to the battlefield to confront an unknown enemy in an unfamiliar setting.
And indeed these Senegalese soldiers, wherever they might have come from – Tamba Counda? Kolda? Jawbeh? – were heading to Banjul to confront and put out Kukoi Samba Sanyang’s 31 July 1981 uprising which had briefly ousted former president Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara from power. The peace (-keepers/-enforcers) had arrived from the east. Amidst some cheers and wailings, their trucks snaked through the enraptured crowd, heading to the outskirts of town. Soon they were out of sight. And from there on, began a long, solemn trip to Banjul. To be sure, between intervals of mental anguish, there were bound to be glimpses of hilarity for the soldiers. It could have been cheerful flashbacks over the spectacle in Basse or just watching a cow step away from the moving herd to nudge up its laggard youngster on the damp trail along the Trans-Gambia Highway or just fancying the wavy flights of some swallows further afield. Battlefield-bound soldiers would need anything to mitigate their anxieties, to give them an aura of unflappability.
Growing up, I had often thought about those Senegalese troops. Whatever happened to them? Did they see combat? Was anyone of them killed? Rumors reaching us in Bassea a few days after the soldiers had passed by said that a good number of them had perished in ambushes along Brikama. They hadn’t reached the actual theater of war yet. The rebels had caught them unawares. True or untrue, I remember being demonstratively emotional about this. Sadness overwhelmed me. It was because I had developed some kind of kinship with these foreign troops. They had come to douse the flames ravaging the capital city and its environs. I had seen them as my country’s protector, as the shield against the plunder and mayhem of saber-rattlers masquerading as revolutionaries, and as the barrier against the madness of the “Kombo War” cascading over and reaching my hometown.
When the soldiers passed through town, many bystanders thumbed them up; I did, too. If nothing else, their bravery was palpably noteworthy – noteworthy as in the West African peacekeeping force Ecomog bulldozing its way from the Monrovia port to the city centre amidst heavy rebel bombardment in 1990. Tom Woweiyu, Charles Taylor’s spokesman, had forewarned: “We will shoot Ecomog!” Or as in American marines lurching into the uncertainty of Baghdad or Fallujah or Helmand. Soldiers can be doubly certain of the possibility of death or bodily harm lurking a few miles away, but they go in anyway.
Arriving from the sea, air and land, the Senegalese troops took out the mutineers. Kukoi and his colleagues fled. The bloodshed was halted. Some peace and stability returned. The Senegalese became the “liberators.” For much of post-July 31, 1981, they enjoyed a good amount of goodwill in the country. Gambians needed security or the assurances of protection, and the Senegalese provided it all. They manned check-points, oversaw curfews and provided personal detail to Jawara. They were everywhere. They couldn’t do any wrong.
But the relationship between Gambians and the Senegalese soldiers soon began to fray. It became obvious to Gambians that their nation was now being effectively manned by a foreign force. The Confederation worsened matters: two leaders and two governments decided to bring the two countries into a political union without consulting with the citizenries of both sides of the neighborly divide. The Senegambia Confederation was jarring for what it created: Confederation government, Confederation army, Confederation babies, Confederation this. There wasn’t much to show for a confederation except for its pot-bellied functionaries and Byzantine bureaucracies.
On that humid morning in 1981, I was a cheerleader for the Senegalese troops. I waved at them and had been grateful for their intervention to keep the peace. But as time wore on, I became angry at their presence. I wanted them: G-o-n-e! So when they dismantled their posts and unceremoniously departed Gambian soil in 1989, I jeered at them on their way out. Good riddance! My sympathies had long dried up. Perhaps my attitudinal change was all too normal. It was a natural, reactionary phenomenon implicit in the behavioral psychology of locals towards an occupying foreign entity. You can see that in the average Iraqi or Afghan. Nobody wants to see a foreign force take over their country and turn its sovereignty upside down.
Cherno Baba Jallow was a journalist in The Gambia who now lives in Southfield, Michigan, USA. This article first appeared in mybasse.org.]]>