Winner of the 2016 John F Kiffney Public Service Award, Omar Bah is the founder and executive director of the Refugee Dream Center, Inc in America. Bah is the author of the book, Africa’s Hell on Earth: The Ordeal of an African Journalist. Currently, he represents the state of Rhode Island at the Refugee Congress of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Washington, DC.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies with a minor in political science from the University of Rhode Island; master’s degree in Public Administration from Roger Williams University, Master’s in Counseling Psychology in Global Mental Health, and currently a doctoral student in Leadership Psychology at William James College. Bah has completed trauma treatment certification at the Harvard Programme in Refugee Trauma, and does trauma based therapy. He has offered dozens of motivational speeches and training seminars; and workshops on refugee, trauma, and international issues at various conferences, universities and public fora. The former Observer news editor talked to Standard news editor Talibeh Hydara about circumstances relating to his traumatic escape from The Gambia end of May 2006.
Let’s start from the basics, who is Omar Bah?
Wow, I just realised it is a very difficult question to answer which reminds me when I used to ask people the same question. But to cut it short, I am former journalist of both the Daily Observer and The Independent newspapers and ended up serving as news editor of Observer.
How did you start your journalism career?
After high school I didn’t really know what to do but I wanted to have the opportunity to speak for people; to have a voice and to highlight things happening in the society. So I thought the best way to do that would be to become a lawyer. And when I am a lawyer, I would defend people, represent them and I was fascinated with courts. Following that dream I went to GTTI for two years to do diploma in law because that was all The Gambia was offering because law wasn’t at the UTG. While I was doing that course, I used to go to the courts a lot for practicals and I used to see reporters and I became a little familiar with journalism. So I said to myself, ‘this would be my new form of being a lawyer’ because even though law is a different thing altogether but with journalism, I would still have a voice. So I walked into the offices of The Independent in 2000 to talk to the then editor Baba Galleh Jallow.
The people who knew you back then as a reporter said you are one of the finest youngsters to have ever embraced journalism in this country but like many of your kind, you eventually got into trouble. How did that happen?
Thanks for that compliment. I am flattered but there were a lot of other people who were really doing great. What was happening in The Gambia was dictatorship at its apex. Anybody could be in trouble at any time. However I didn’t think I would be in trouble and be declared wanted and a national manhunt launched. The Gambian press then was censored and there was also self-censorship. I am not the kind that bears censorship and I see no reason why I should live in a country where I would not speak about things that matter; that is not me. So when Pa Nderry set up Freedom Newspaper, I was one of the first he contacted.
At the time Observer was infested with NIAs and Saja Taal was censoring people. In fact I deliberately stopped running Bantaba column because I refused to be censored on even the questions I would ask. It was dangerous to report for Freedom and I had to use a pen name but one day there was hacking and they saw all the correspondences (from me). I was the only one reporting for him and they had all the documents.
When did you actually realise that it was time to flee the country?
I was at Observer in the afternoon when I got a call from Alagie Mbye from UK. He used to be a reporter at The Independent. This is the guy who after he left to UK, never called me. But suddenly he called me and told me to step out because he wanted to talk to me about something confidential. He then told me everything I wrote for Pa Nderry has been exposed and Jammeh is very upset. He told me he didn’t even expect to get me on the phone because he thought I was dead already.
He told me that everything was public knowledge on Gambia Post. My legs couldn’t carry me. I walked back into the office and picked up my bag. I stepped into the computer room and gave D100 to the layout editors and told them to buy Coke. It was my way of saying goodbye because I thought I was gonna die. It was a very emotional moment for me. They knew something was wrong but I couldn’t say. That is how I ran out of this building to get a vehicle to Serekunda. Around Aisha Marie there was a small Internet café. I sat in that café for four hours checking the online discussion and seeing evidence of what I wrote posted there.
What happened next?
Alagie Mbye called again and warned me to avoid public places. Immediately after, Sheriff Bojang Junior called me and he sounded really scared. He convinced me to leave the county because the issue was getting more serious and Jammeh was very angry with me. I instantly got sick. My head was pounding, my temperature was high. He told me even if I would be killed, let it happen while I was on the run. That would show I have made an effort.
Did you leave immediately after?
No, Ebrima Baldeh of GRTS then came. He is my good friend. He actually brought me some money. I explained everything to Baldeh and even showed him the leaked emails. Baldeh kept crying because he too thought he was seeing me for the last time. And then NIA [guys] started calling me. They said I should report to the nearest police station. I switched off my phone; Baldeh and I then started crying. It was a very distressing moment for us. We shook hands with our left and parted. By the time I reached Denton Bridge soldiers were everywhere; there was a national manhunt for me. When I saw the soldiers, I just felt like jumping through the window and go into the mangroves but I was numbed, so I gave up.
I couldn’t take it and I just wanted to die and get over with it. Luckily for me, the paramilitary guy who searched the vehicle was a junior of mine ten years earlier in Berending [School]. He was asking for ID cards but when he saw me, he was shocked. That is how I knew this was really a manhunt. He called my name…and then quickly told the driver to move so the others would not see me. I kept avoiding the security until I got into the ferry at Barra where, after I briefly checked on my sister, I hired a taxi to Amdalai [at the border].
When the driver reached the junction that goes to my village, I told him I wanted to branch off and see my mum. I was married for only two months and my wife was there. The driver said he didn’t have enough gas and it was late.
How did it feel knowing you are leaving everything behind, including your family?
It was the biggest sense of loss I have ever felt in my entire life. The feeling that I could be killed even before leaving the country or crashing my dreams, aspirations and all the plans I had. It was a bitter moment! It was one of the most difficult moments in my life. That is how I left this country to Senegal.
You must have been exhausted when you reached Dakar.
I reached around 3am and I was very tired, very hungry and sick. I didn’t know what to do. I leaned against someone’s vehicle and I immediately felt asleep. During that momentary slumber, I felt like I was dreaming in the middle of a mob trying to kill me. I opened my eyes…and it wasn’t a dream. I was surrounded by people who had stones and sticks and wanted to kill me because I was leaning against a car they thought I was burgling. I spoke to them in my Gambian Wolof accent and one of them quickly realised that I was Gambian. They almost killed me. Mob justice. Then the guy started consoling me…and I started crying heavily. When the sun rose, I even realised that my pants were torn, my zip was ripped off. I didn’t know what even happened, so I entered in a tailoring shop where they gave me a wrapper and fixed my zip so I could go into the society.
So how did you find your way to settle down after a traumatic journey?
Yeah I just looked at my book where I saved numbers. Three weeks earlier I was in Ivory Coast for a conference so I met a few people who are residing in Dakar. When I reached Amie Joof-Cole she couldn’t believe I was alive and away from The Gambia. That was the beginning of my life in exile. She called DA Jawo, the current minister of information, who came to pick me up at Amie’s office to his house. He really took care of me like his own son. The following morning DA went to work very early but he had told Musa Saidykhan and Ebrima Sillah [two exiled journalists – the latter is the current GRTS DG], to pick me up from his house. When they came I heard them talking downstairs about me and DA hadn’t said anything about people coming to pick me up. I was very scared and paranoid; I thought it was NIA who came after me and I almost jumped through the window but then I realised it was Ebrima’s voice.
Where you following developments in The Gambia while in Dakar?
Of course, when I arrived, I heard Lamin Cham [now Editor-in-Chief of this paper] and many others were arrested because of me. I felt very bad about that and two days later they declared me wanted. It was the first time a civilian was declared wanted by Jammeh. You can imagine the extent of his anger. My father was arrested in Niumi, my elder brother too was arrested and the intelligence officers harassed my wife by threatening her and monitoring her phone. It was a very difficult time for me. And because of the severity of my situation with all the people getting arrested about the issue, the Media Foundation for West Africa thought it was safe for me to go to Ghana to be at least distant from Jammeh. It was tough for me there because everything was different.
During your stay in Ghana and considering the situation back home, were you ever tempted to reach out to your family here?
Before I left for Ghana, Amie Joof helped me talk to my wife but the instruction was no name, no address for not more than 15 seconds. All I was allowed to say was that I am fine and that I was moving to another country. I used the same routine with my mum and my dad. While I was in Ghana with the help of Media Foundation and the US Embassy, they processed me as a refugee to go to America.
Dozens of Gambian journalists have fled during Jammeh’s rule but almost all of them remained journalists even outside. Why did you shift?
Well I found my identity and I am not bound by one thing. I wanted to become a lawyer but I became a journalist instead to advocate for people to have a voice. My boss Sheriff Bojang [former Information minister] used to tell me that he was proud of me because I always tried to know a little about everything. The ten years I spent in the US gave me the opportunity to see the world in a different perspective and I call that my new form of journalism. When I went to the US, I was taken to the smallest state in America called Rhode Island where I did not know anybody. No family. No friends. I started from scratch. I was so depressed and so isolated but I was resilient too. Within three weeks I got a job at a mortgage corporation!
Now coming to now, when it was announced on 2 December 2016 that Jammeh lost election, what was your reaction?
I was in my basement following the election the whole night. It felt like waking up from hundred years of hibernation. I was asking myself whether it was real. People were celebrating while I was crying. It felt very unreal. Jammeh has now lost power? That I can visit Gambia? Gambians can now get out of this nonsense? well every chapter ends…and that was the end of his.