By Samsudeen Sarr
The morning of Friday, 8 September 1994, was the day I decided to start playing scared or mad as if affected by my traumatic experience on Wednesday, 6 September.
But before elaborating on the drama, I want to first do some fact checks on the evidence given by Prison Officer Baboucarr Jatta also known as ‘GV Paint’ on Tuesday, 22 January 1994. Despite appearing very credible, I stand to totally dispute Mr Jatta’s story of taking the risk to prove to the late Kebba Cessay, the former NSS boss, that the tortured detainees isolated at Confinement No 1 and taken for dead were not killed, by showing one of them to him, a gesture he claimed to have helped restore Mr Ceesay’s sanity.
He said he was clandestinely helped by his boss Susso. I could remember Corporal Susso whose boss was Sergeant Bakary Bojang, an officer so mean and vigilant that nothing like what Mr Jatta explained could have happened on his watch. Ask any truthful detainee at Confinement No 4 and he would tell you that there was no way for Mr Jatta to breach the tight security there following the torture and the four-day tight lockdown all over. Besides, the location of the cell occupied by Mr Kebba Ceesay, next to that of Mr Alagie Kanteh, showed no practical possibility for Mr Cessay to see anything or anybody in Confinement No 1. Mr Jatta only said that he showed one of the victims to Mr Ceesay that finally brought him back to his senses but never gave a name.
May be ‘Sly Captain Cham’ will accept to be that victim, but I am sure Mr Chongan and Mr Jeng, if asked, will dispute that story as totally untrue. As a matter of fact, throughout the ten months of my detention at Mile 2, I never remembered interacting with this prison medic. We were all along treated by the army medic Corporal Sarr. If Mr Jatta was treating detainees, his activities must have been restricted to Confinement No 1 where I only visited once after being freed and appointed deputy army commander. He said I was mad from 6 September 1994 – the night of the torture – up to the day I saw the victims, Chongan, Cham and Jeng alive again which was on 27 January 1995, the day Sana Sabally and Sadibou Haidara were arrested. That was really inaccurate.
Anyway, I started the madness performance by refusing to eat the served breakfast that Friday. I also rejected the lunch and dinner and wouldn’t respond to any questions or statements uttered mainly by the prison guards to change my mood. The commissioner also tried without succeeding either.
It was perfect that prison regulations stipulated that food served to inmates but not consumed for one reason or the other, had to be left in the cell until the next day. So my breakfast, lunch and dinner were all left on the floor in my cell.
By this time we were getting used to the food and the pap in particular. So as soon as the place was vacated by the guards, I tossed out my head towel, took few spoons of the pap and added water in the container to level up the original mark, eat a little from the lunch, a little from the chèrè and top it up with water. It continued like that for the rest of the days of the drama. I had also hidden some biscuits in my inner trousers. The mosquito repellant sent by my wife was enough to go for at least another ten days. I am highly prone to malaria infection and would take every precaution to avoid mosquitoes. I was lucky to survive the first few day when we had nothing but the uniforms on us.
I didn’t do very well on Saturday morning to convince anyone about my sick condition except for some detainees. Prison Officer Thomas Jarju, one of the most difficult guards, never for once believed that there was anything wrong with me. He kept on saying that the late Alieu Sallah did the same thing to them during the 1981 coup by faking the paralysis of his legs until he was pardoned just to go home and walk perfectly normal again.
Oh yes, I wrote most of these things in my book, Coup d’etat by the Gambia National Army. I will refer the commissioners of the TRRC and all interested Gambians to purchase and read the book available at Amazon books.
Just after midday, for the first time, I sensed a breakthrough. The lockdown was partially lifted when Commissioner Saidy now concerned, brought out Dr Malick Njie, the GNA doctor detained the same day with me, to assess my condition. He tried to talk to me but couldn’t get anything substantial. I only behaved as if there was no one in the cell. While listening under my hood Dr Njie gave a dire verbal report to Commissioner Saidy of what he said was irreversibly wrong with me. It was really funny and couldn’t resist chucking all day long.
By nightfall, the Commissioner finally admitted Dr Njie’s prognosis and promised to report the matter to the AFPRC members and to see whether arrangements could be made to take me to a hospital. We all know how Lt Sadibou Haidara, the Interior minister then reacted to that request. He had criminalised all actions by anybody to evacuate any detainee to a hospital.
Then on Sunday, the miraculous break occurred. The lockdown was fully lifted with the unbelievable news that police interrogators had arrived to finally take the statements of all detainees. Everybody including me was excited about the development but I knew I couldn’t go in my “state of health”.
I can add that from that on things only got better; nobody was ever tortured, insulted, harassed until I was freed eight months later. I will come to that in my next article.
To my surprise that Sunday, when it was my turn to be interrogated, Thomas Jarju swore on forcing me to go. He came with three prison guards ready to carry me by force if I resisted. Until then, I had resisted every effort to move me out of the cell. Thomas asked me to get up from the bed with my towel-covered head but I remained motionless. He ordered his men to get me up and out by force if necessary. They held me by my shoulders and I easily cooperated. I didn’t want to be injured. Playing crazy is understandable but to the extent of sustaining unnecessary injuries would have been real craziness.
Out of the cell, we walked slowly to the main iron gate and out to the office.
The interrogation room was fairly big for an office; looked more like a conference room. There was a wide rectangular mahogany table in the centre surrounded by wooden chairs that accounted for the whole furniture. Armed soldiers and plain clothes police officers were present. Some were seated with others standing.
I was somewhat shocked to see and recognise police officer Gonel Bah of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) branch among the interrogators. We lived in the same street in Serekunda. His brother Edrisa Bah was my childhood friend from infancy to adulthood. Gonel Bah still lives in Serekunda and should be able to corroborate this evidence. I have since never ever discussed the incident with him.
He called me by my street name, Sheriff Sarr, and assertively asked me what my problem was. One glance of his face was enough to tell me that he was there more to satisfy his curiosity than simply for the purpose of taking statements of innocent detainees. I covered my head again and refused to answer his questions. He talked about how my mother the late Ya Rohey Gaye (RIP) at home was worried about my condition but I pretended not to understand any of that and even mumbled a few incomprehensible words. At last he expressed his disgust denouncing me for being a coward in the midst of my colleagues.
PO Thomas Jarju kept on arguing that they shouldn’t believe in my “pretence”; that there was nothing wrong with me, that Alieu Sallah did the same thing to them until he began to get on the nerves of the interrogators for what was obvious before their eyes. One interrogator impatiently put it to him that they couldn’t do anything about my situation and suggested taking me back and sending another detainee. Recalling Gonel Bah’s last words he emphatically reiterated his disappointment with me for breaking under pressure. Under my hood I was quietly challenging his conscience, faith and moral standards for not demanding my evacuation to a medical facility after confirming beyond any doubt the sick condition of a neighbour and person he considered a true “brother”. I was finally taken back to my cell, Cell No 1.
Samsudeen Sarr is a published author, former diplomat and commander of the Gambia National Army. He now runs a vehicle repairs services in Kotu.
To be continued.