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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Book of the Week

Book of the Week

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Chongan’s Balangbaa is a gripping, fast-paced narrative of the causes and consequences of the 1994 coup in The Gambia. Chongan talks of his attempts to avert the unfolding coup, betrayal by trusted colleagues, arrest, imprisonment, torture at the infamous Mile ll Prisons, and subsequent exile, which is an ironic family legacy.

His story is melancholic and humorous but inspiring at the same time. It reflects an indomitable will to survive against incredible odds. At Mile ll Prisons, he narrates that gruesome acts of torture, including mock executions, occurred routinely against the backdrop of character failures and interesting reversals of fortunes. In this dark episode of his life, he saw once-powerful torturers become victims, severely weakened, compromised and disgraced.

Balangabaa is a richly textured love story that is sometimes portrayed between family members torn apart by circumstances beyond their control, resulting in exile or death. It is a must-read. It is written in crisp and beautiful language. In the end, it is as much a personal, family story as it is of a country in deep crisis. (Blurb by Professor Abdoulaye Saine, Ph.D. Professor & Chair, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio)

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Author

Ibrima Ismaila Chongan is a former Assistant Inspector General and the first Executive Officer for Operations of The Gambia Police Force. He was also the last Commander of the Gambia National Gendarmerie before it was amalgamated into the Gambia Police Force. He graduated from the French Gendarmerie Officers Training School in Melun in 1986 and went through further military training in Turkey and Italy. He holds a law degree with honours and a Masters Degree in International Law. He was called to the Bar of England and Wales, Middle Temple in July 2007, and is now a British civil servant with many years of experience working for the Home office as a senior policy adviser on International Police and Judicial Cooperation. He is also enrolled as a Barrister and Solicitor in The Gambia.

Chongan was the first witness to testify at the Gambia’s Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which was established to investigate the 1994 coup d’etat and the atrocities committed by the military during the ensuing 22 years.

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Excerpt

SEPTEMBER 7TH

After the faint streaks of daylight slipped into my cell, I became curious to know who my neighbours were, if I had any. I thought of my fellow two prisoners who had been dragged out of Security Wing No. 4 before me last night. I entertained hopes they had the same fate as me, a terrifying sleepless night, but they were still breathing in a dark cell within. I desperately needed company, if only a disembodied friendly voice to converse with and share what intelligence there was to know.

“Captain Cham!” I heard my own voice echo in the cavernous wing. I was greeted by silence, and I quickly lost hope.

“Chongs!” Capt. Mamat Cham finally answered from cell No. 8. ‘Are we saved?” he asked, relying on me instead for some good news.

I couldn’t answer his question because our lives were still hanging by a thread. It wasn’t evening yet, the scheduled time of the real execution. But no matter what would happen when that time came, I thanked Allah for sparing our lives so far from irrational young soldiers who mistook their recklessness for bravery. I also learnt that our third comrade in ordeal, RSM Baboucarr Jeng, was languishing in Cell No. 1. There was no one else. We chatted in dry, hoarse voices to keep our spirits in guarded optimism that Allah would continue to save our lives from the executioners. But none of us had any real faith that this would come to pass. Nor would we accept the more realistic outcome for condemned men in the holding cells of the execution gallows.

Around 1:00 p.m., the iron doors clanked open. My adrenaline shot up and when I saw soldiers with guns I nearly collapsed thinking in the split second that the members of the ruling council came much earlier than they had promised to carry out the execution. I didn’t see any members of the ruling council among the group of soldiers who entered and I noticed that they were only a fraction of last night’s large number.

But only after I realized that they were escorting in Thomas Jarjue, an Assistant Prison Officer, and Corporal Buba Jatta, the Prison Medic, did my breathing begin to fall into a normal rhythm. Corporal Jatta brought with him a lot of Gentian Violet (G.V. paint) to treat the injuries we sustained from [the previous] night’s beating and torture. He dressed our wounds, starting with Capt. Cham in Cell No. 8, followed by me in Cell No. 5 and then RSM Baboucarr Jeng at Cell No. 1. Should this give us renewed hope? Why would they send us a medic with only five hours to our date with death? After the corporal completed his medical duties, Jarjue, the prison officer, escorted him out and locked the gate. Once again, the three of us were left alone in our world of solitary confinement.

Around 4:00 p.m., the iron gates clanked open again and I had the same panic attack. This time, however, Assistant prison Officer Jarjue escorted in a soldier who brought our lunch and dinner at the same time. For whatever reason, we hadn’t been served the standard prison breakfast of a single cup of porridge. To me, the only reason they brought our lunch and dinner together was that they wanted to be considerate enough to let us die on a full stomach. One memorable final farewell to this world! Whatever the real reason behind the idea was, all three of us had lost our appetite and didn’t bother to touch the food. Our rodent co-residents in this most despicable wing were drawn by the smell of food and they came in droves for a field day. By the gluttonous way the rats were eating our lunch and dinner, it was telling that they were having a rare special feast.

By nightfall, we were terrified characters trapped in waiting for the gun-slinging powerful villains to show up for our execution. Every minute was too suspenseful as we cocked our ears for the creaking of the iron gates. The rats roamed idly in energetic restlessness thanks to our mear and the mosquitoes hovered and attacked our bodies with impunity. But who cared about all that when the mind was focused like a laser beam on the Anger of Death about to come down to take our soul to the next world. Long horrific minutes ticked into long horrific hours until we heard the early morning call to fajr prayer. I prayed and sought the mercy of Allah to change the hearts of the members of the ruling council &out our execution. By the time the faint streak of the sun penetrated into the cells, the iron gates remained shuttered. No one showed up. And when we heard the all too familiar piercing sirens of the motorcade of vice-chairman Sana Sabally on the highway wailing towards Banjul, we knew that we had just survived another night.

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