With Mustapha K Darboe
On April 19, 2019, Yundum Barracks, a military encampment 40 minutes’ drive from Banjul, was a setting of an unusual activity. It was exhumation of remains of 7 soldiers summarily executed and buried in the camp on November 11, 1994.
As an excavator truck dug, family members sobbed in between. In their midst was Abdul Aziz Barrow. Aziz is the son of Lieutenant Basiru Barrow, one of the soldiers executed. At 26, he was barely a year when his father was murdered with six others. In total, Commission’s investigations revealed at least 11 soldiers were executed on that day at different times and places.
“When I first arrived at the scene of excavation, for some reason, I felt empty on the inside. Empty in the sense that I saw the remains of 7 people and one among them could have been the dad I never knew,” he said.
“The dad I yearned for his companionship when I was but a toddler…”
Lieutenant Barrow and his colleagues were accused of planning a coup to topple former ruler Yahya Jammeh, barely 4 months after his takeover. As it would come to be typical of Jammeh’s regime, he reacted with ruthlessness.
“Take no prisoners,” Jammeh told the soldiers as they left him at State House to attack Yundum Barracks. His onetime close friend and then Minister of Defence Edward Singhatey confirmed to the Truth Commission that the kill orders were from Jammeh.
Sanna Sabally, the military government’s Vice President at the time, led the mission that would cost 11 soldiers their lives. According to the testimonies before the Commission, the soldiers were lined up with their hands tied behind them and shot point blank.
Seven robs were later found in the mass grave where seven remains were found, corroborating the testimonies.
It took the exhumation team of the Truth Commission almost a week to find remains in Yundum Barracks. They had excavated dozens of meters stretch before any luck until on April 18.
The victims’ families were invited to see for themselves the exhumations of the remains of their loved ones on April 19. “I couldn’t cry and I remained calm for the simple reason that I didn’t even know how I should have felt,” said Aziz.
Frustrating wait for answers
It has been over a year since the Commission made its first successful exhumation of 7 remains. The result is yet to be out. The long wait, said the family members, is a frustrating one.
“I feel frustrated not just because of having to wait too long but for the simple fact that the TRRC never reached out to update us on the latest developments regarding the remains of our loved ones,” said Aziz Barrow.
Aziz Barrow is not the only one who is frustrated at the slow pace. Mamudou Sillah, a younger brother of Cadet Amadou Sillah, one of the soldiers believed to be among the exhumed remains isn’t happy at the pace of identification either.
“It has been a long wait… We have waited for over 20 years and now after exhumations, we had to wait for over a year again. That is a difficult thing,” said Sillah.
“Burial of the remains of our relatives gives us closure… When you bury the remains, you can now put the past behind you but without that, how can you?”
For Nana, there is something the Commission is getting wrong. It is communication. “It is also crucial to increase the line of communication with families affected to set expectations and ensure they are not left in the dark as they await forensic results,” said Nana.
“It is unclear how the current pandemic will affect the search and identification work in this regard but I would call on the TRRC to discuss their plans with the families of those forcibly disappeared and to have them at the centre of this process.”
Dozens more remains to be exhumed
In Gambia under Jammeh, stories of disappearances are not rare to come by. In a large number of cases, these disappeared victims are buried in unmarked graves. But thanks to testimonies of dozens of witnesses appearing before the Truth Commission, some of these graves are being located.
The Commission’s first exhumation was in Yundum. The identification process for these remains is underway, said the Commission.
And now on its final year, the Commission plans to exhume at least 100 remains. It has so far identified 5 suspected burial sites in Kanilai, Jammeh’s home village, Yundum Barrack, Siffoe, Jambur, Baboon Island and Barra.
“Testimonial evidences from a source notes that the source has witnessed or participated in the burial of at least one hundred individuals,” said the Commission in its interim report.
“The TRRC will therefore focus on searching for these burial sites and recovering the remains in order to positively identify who they are and returning them to their families.”
The Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou said his ministry is looking for funding to ensure the Commission brings remains of disappeared people to their families.
“I would stress the importance of securing the known or presumed graves to ensure restricted access to these areas and I believe it will be necessary to coordinate with international forensic specialists as done in 2018 to ensure that the remains exhumed are promptly identified and returned to families and avoid delays,” said Nana- Jo Ndow, the Executive Director of African Network against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED).
Nana was also a victim. Her father, Saul Ndow disappeared in Gambia in April 2013 when she was 27. Saul Ndow, a father of 5, was a critic of the former ruler Jammeh. A former Jammeh hitman, Nuha Badgie, had confessed to participating in Ndow’s murder before the Truth Commission. Saul Ndow disappeared with a former Gambian lawmaker for Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction Party Mahawa Cham.
In 2019, Nana took Gambia to regional Ecowas court “seeking for proper and impartial investigations” into the disappearances of her dad.
Earlier this year, Nana directed a documentary “I Cannot Bury My Father”, featuring Ghanaian families whose relatives were killed in Gambia in 2005. The migrants who were reportedly travelling to Europe were captured and executed on orders of former President Yahya Jammeh.
Limited capacity at the Commission
At the Commission, the exhumation target is not to be failed. But there is a problem—it is time and limited capacity. The Commission has one year left on its mandate, of course with possibility of extension.
Also problematic is that it has to entirely rely on eye witness testimonies to identify the mass graves which often brings complications.
The Commission’s sources told them more people may be buried at the Yundum Barracks. However, there is no consensus on where these burial sites are. “One of the areas identified to be a burial site has a building sitting on top of it,” said the Commission in its interim report.
There is also a capacity challenge. The Truth Commission has only one forensic archaeologist. Other members of its team have ancillary trainings. The exhumations could take a lot of time to realise, Commission’s executive secretary Dr Baba Galleh Jallow confirmed to Justice Info.
The Commission’s communication director, Essa Jallow, said the exhumations will be a “continuous process and this has been drawn from the experiences of other truth Commissions”.
“We are still constrained both in terms of expertise and equipment. There is only one forensic archaeologist at TRRC leading the exhumation exercise under the supervision of the Director of Research and Investigations,” said Jallow.
“In order to ensure an efficient exhumation process in a more professional and timely manner, the TRRC would need the services of more experts such as a forensic anthropologist, and a ballistics expert because some of the victims in most of the cases we will be dealing with are believed to have died from gunshot wounds. We also need to have a ground-penetrating radar to save time and resources in the search process.”
Emotional toll of not knowing relative’s whereabouts
Under Jammeh, as Gambians disappeared so did foreign nationals, including 54 West African nationals in 2005. Migrants who were reportedly on their way to Europe were captured in the country and executed, confirmed two of Jammeh’s hitmen, Omar Jallow and Malick Jatta, who participated in their executions.
In 2019, another member of Jammeh’s hitsquad, Amadou Badgie, admitted participating into the disappearance of two Americans Ebou Jobe and Mamut Ceesay in 2013. This issue has been a concern to the US government since Jammeh was in power. And now, according to the Truth Commission, the US has offered assistance in the investigations into the disappearance of Ceesay and Jobe.
“Government has since visited the suspected burial sites of the missing individuals and efforts are underway to continue work on these sites,” Commission said in its interim report.
“The TRRC Research and Investigations Directorate will continue to work with law enforcement officials on this and other related matters that are of concern to both the U.S. and the TRRC.”
As the Commission’s act recognizes, bringing remains of people’s disappeared victims is a vital part of addressing the ills of the past.
“I definitely welcome the TRRC plans to search for the burial sites and recover the remains of those forcibly disappeared using information from their source,” said Nana.
“This will bring some sort of relief for families who have been anxiously waiting to know the fate of the whereabouts of their loved ones. The emotional toll of not knowing is indescribable.”
Aziz added: “The idea of him (Lieutenant Basiru Barrow) finally laying to rest is all we yearn for and the sooner it is done, the better.”
“Him (Lieutenant Basiru Barrow) being laid to rest in the way of Islam will also bring a sense of finality to all the misery and emotional turmoil we have been going through as a family since 1994.”
So far, the Commission’s 100 exhumations target will be Gambia’s first attempt to conduct mass exhumations. The country has little resources and only one forensic expert, a police officer by profession.
In 2017, two separate exhumations were done leading to identification of remains of 4 individuals killed by the regime in 2014 and 2016.
These successful exhumations were done by the Justice Rapid Response with assistance from Gambia Police Force. The 3 of those exhumed in 2017 were soldiers who lost their lives in an attempt to topple Jammeh on December 30, 2014. The soldiers Alagie Jaja Nyass, Njaga Jagne and Lamin Sanneh were buried at an unknown location in Foni, Jammeh’s region of birth..
The soldiers flew into the country from United States where they had planned and funded the attack. They were led by a former state guard commander Lamin Sanneh.
Also, part of those exhumed was Solo Sandeng. Sandeng died in state custody on April 15, 2016, a day after he was picked up at a protest ground. Sandeng and 15 other colleagues were protesting for proper electoral reforms.
In January 2019, Gambia’s Justice Ministry handed over to the families the remains of the three soldiers to their families at a somber ceremony in Banjul. However, the remains of Sandeng are in the custody of the courts as 7 of his alleged killers are standing trial for his murder.
The financial support for these exhumations came from Canada, according to Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou.