At first, Marie Therese Ndeye Sonko refused to believe her son was dead.
In the dizzying aftermath of the student protests in April 2000, where police fired live rounds into the crowds, Ms. Ndeye couldn’t bring herself to go to the morgue where she was told Emil lay.
Instead, she walked from hospital to hospital, police station to police station, tallying up untold miles as she trekked across Gambia’s seaside capital and the surrounding towns hoping for different news. But she couldn’t change the truth. Eventually, Ms. Ndeye mustered the strength to drag herself to the morgue to identify the body.
In the 21 years since, she’s gone without knowing the identity of her son’s killer, and also without so much as a word, an acknowledgment, an apology – anything, she says – from Yahya Jammeh, the Gambian dictator in power at the time.
The killings at the protest were hushed up. For years, silence was the policy for Jammeh-era crimes that spanned the torture and murder of political opponents, “witch hunts” of women accused of sorcery, and medical abuse of HIV patients.
Recently, the country has moved in a markedly different direction. The Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) put in place by President Adama Barrow, who ousted Mr. Jammeh at the ballot box in 2016, has collected hundreds of testimonies from victims like Ms. Ndeye and perpetrators. Broadcasts of the proceedings commanded rapt attention at restaurants and in corner stores – wherever people could access a television or radio. The commission’s final report was submitted to the government in November and is due to be made public by the end of the year.
However, the hardest part in Gambia’s post-Jammeh era is yet to come: moving forward with – and defining – justice, reconciliation, and healing. It’s a tall order, namely when it comes to how and whom to prosecute, and whether that will include Mr. Jammeh.
“??Post-conflict healing requires a delicate mix of truth-telling, reconciliation, [and] soul-searching to identify the dynamics which gave rise to the violence in the first place,” says Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in an email.
At the same time, truth commissions across the continent and world have infamously issued final reports that sit in boxes collecting dust, with no government follow-up.
Truth commissions, Ms. Dufka says, “are not designed nor should be made to bear the burden of delivering justice, which requires the strengthening of rule of law institutions and trials for those who bear the greatest responsibility for mass atrocity.”
Not just a report
In Gambia, doubts have mounted about whether the government will actually implement the TRRC’s report.
For starters, the report’s submission has been repeatedly delayed. Even more worrying for some, Mr. Barrow created an electoral alliance with Mr. Jammeh’s old political party ahead of his reelection in December. (Mr. Jammeh didn’t support the alliance, and – from exile in Equatorial Guinea – threw his support behind a rival candidate.)
On the other hand, there is tangible pressure for the government to act – including from the International Criminal Court at a recent democracy conference held in Banjul’s suburbs.
At home, the commission’s decision to hold testimonial hearings throughout the country – and broadcast them – made truth-telling and reconciliation accessible to ordinary people, says Baba Galleh Jallow, the former executive secretary of Gambia’s TRRC. Doing so also acted as insurance, in case the government fails to implement the commission’s recommendations.
“We had to go beyond just writing a report with recommendations. We had to go out there, and talk to the people about what happened,” says Mr. Jallow. Collecting the truth “was meant to be a subversive process.”
Mr. Jammeh will be recommended for prosecution in the final report, Mr. Jallow says, but he pegs the odds of all its recommendations being implemented at only around 50-50. Officials still part of the commission were more guarded in their assessment, declining to reveal details or place blame on the Barrow government for the report’s delays, as Mr. Jallow does.
After his reelection, Mr. Barrow told the press that “there will be justice” but has so far been vague on details.
Those fearing the worst in Gambia, though, point to Liberia. If the government there had followed recommendations from the country’s truth commission, a war crimes court would have formed over a decade ago to address two civil wars stretching from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. Instead, rebel leaders accused of atrocities sit in Congress in Monrovia.
Others say truth commissions on their own are powerful even in the absence of government action. From Chad to South Africa, they have exposed previously covered-up atrocities and led to some healing, even if they haven’t always led to prosecutions.
In Burundi, journalist Desire Nimubona has been following a truth commission focused mostly on a 1972 genocide. As mass graves are unearthed, history is being rewritten in real time, says Mr. Nimubona, a Hutu who narrowly survived a stabbing by a Tutsi schoolmate.
He’s also witnessed profound examples of forgiveness, like when victims and perpetrators have come together and publicly declared their reconciliation.
Prosecutions are unlikely, though – and there are plenty of critics who want the commission to expand its scope. Mr. Nimubona, for his part, worries prosecutions might cause instability. But he doesn’t want the reconciliation process to be so rushed that forgiveness is imposed.
“The government says, ‘Oh no, we need to reconcile, we need to forget.’ But I think it is better to forgive someone who has asked for forgiveness. … I think people need to apologize.”
“Prepared for whatever comes”
Ms. Ndeye says she has forgiven whoever killed her son. She’s even forgiven Mr. Jammeh.
But she isn’t calling for a stop to prosecutions – and neither is Awa Njie.
“The perpetrators must be brought to justice – including Yahya Jammeh,” says Ms. Njie, whose husband, an army officer, was killed soon after Mr. Jammeh came to power. For those demanding prosecutions, the issue is about more than individual cases of forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s about correcting two decades of government impunity.
For now, with the future of the TRRC’s final report still uncertain, those fighting for justice are forging ahead however they can.
“Truth-telling is important. It is a commendable step by the government,” says Lisa Camara, a program manager at the African Network against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED), a Gambia-based victims advocacy organization.
But ANEKED isn’t keen to rely entirely on the government. It leads independent lawsuits on behalf of Jammeh-era victims, organizes community dialogues on healing and forgiveness, and supports a museum that honors victims. “We will continue advocating whether the report and the recommendations come out or not, whatever is in [those] recommendations.”
“The TRRC [is] not the only avenue,” she says. “We have a plan. We’re prepared for whatever comes – if recommendations come out or not, we’re going to continue advocacy, we’re going to continue to support the victims.”