A PHONE CALL FROM FONI
On September 2nd, 2018, I received a call from a lady who, initially, refused to identify herself but insisted that I meet her in Bwiam, a town in Foni Kansala about 105 km from the capital city of Banjul. She did not want to give details of what she wanted to meet about but assured me that it had to do with a family member. I asked for her name. Her hesitation and then sudden blurting of “Fatou,” a very common name in The Gambia, were not lost on me. I could also tell she had me on speakerphone and suspected that someone was feeding her answers to my questions. I asked her how she got my number, but she said only that she got it from a family friend. I was not comfortable with the request, and her unwillingness to share much information about herself or what the call was all about just added to my discomfort and dubiety. She seemed afraid of something, and I was wary this might be a trap of sorts. I was quite paranoid in those early days because of all the unknowns I was dealing with as an investigator of human rights violations of the former regime. I knew some people would not want certain things to come out about them, but I did not yet realize the extent to which they were willing to go to protect themselves. I also knew that Yahya Jammeh’s supporters were bitterly unhappy about the TRRC’s existence, and the fact that this lady first asked me to meet her in Bwiam, in the former President’s native stronghold of Foni, where he maintained strong support, heightened my need to sleep with the proverbial “one eye open.”
I did not know who gave the woman and her daughter my phone number until after weeks of working with them. I learned that the individual that gave them my number worked for the State Intelligence Services (SIS), previously the National Intelligence Agency, an institution at the forefront of the human rights violations of Gambians. The fact that someone in that institution already had my phone number and was referring people to me was unsettling, given that I was not working on TRRC matters with anyone there at the time. But then they would not be an intelligence agency if they could not find basic information like the phone numbers of individuals.
Given the unknowns and my reservations about traveling all the way to Bwiam, I convinced the woman to meet me closer to the TRRC premises (which was still under renovation), and I promised to refund her transportation costs. We agreed to meet at the petrol station at Traffic Lights, a junction linking several other communities, where I felt I could have some control over the situation. I parked my car in a space usually reserved for taxis and waited for her arrival. She had called when she was near the US Embassy building, and I stayed on the phone with her as she approached our meeting point. I was able to see a young lady alight from a taxi and start looking around, dressed as she had described; as I approached her, I called out the name she gave me. When she did not respond, I concluded it was an alias. I repeated the name, this time a bit louder, and she looked back, smiling at me as she turned around and walked toward me. I told her the type of hat and color of shirt I would be wearing.
After our initial greeting, she took out her phone and called someone, whom I later found to be her mother. Her mother was the one who wanted to meet me, but she could not come to Banjul, so she sent her daughter, with whom I had mostly been communicating. The mother thanked me for meeting her daughter and prayed fervently for me. I invited “Fatou” to join me in the car, where we could talk in private, and she obliged.
Once in the car, she called her mother again and put her on speakerphone. It was an extremely hot afternoon, so I put the windows up and ran the air conditioner. They told me of their fears about reprisals if word ever got out that they had contacted the TRRC about the disappearance of their loved one. Rumors were rife in their community that Yahya Jammeh had their loved one killed, but they had to pretend these rumors were false, even though they believed them to be true.
I assured them of the TRRC confidentiality and informed them that due to the nature of my job, I may have to involve another person with whom I worked, but assured them we were all bound by confidentiality. We had a duty to protect their identity as well as the information they shared with us.
Subsequently, the mother informed me that her younger brother who worked in the government was the one who recommended that they speak to me to see if I could help. She told me that they had no one else to turn to. While they did not ask directly, I figured they wanted to know if I could promise that I would work on the case and protect their identity. I promised that before I revealed any information that might identify them in any way, I would speak to them first. We agreed to proceed.
Over the phone, the mother told me of the disappearance of her husband. According to her, one late evening in 2009, as they were eating dinner, they heard car doors slam in the stillness of the night and three gentlemen walked into their compound asking for her husband. When her husband identified himself, they requested that he go with them to the National Intelligence Agency on the orders of the President’s Office. That was language typical of NIA personnel whose office reported directly to Yahya Jammeh, and thus using the “President’s Office” made their request seem very critical and the agents seem very important. The lady said her husband asked if he could finish eating, and they told him to hurry up. He took two or three more spoonfuls of food and then asked whether he could just grab a shirt from the house. They refused and told him to send someone to get his shirt for him, and he sent one of his children.
The lady said she tried asking them where they were taking her husband and was told they were taking him to the NIA but would bring him back as soon as possible. When the husband asked if they could tell him what he was wanted for, he was told that he would find out when they got there (typical NIA language). They insisted they were only sent to come and get him and did not know why he was wanted. She said that her husband left with the three men and that since then, no one has seen or heard from him. The incident happened in 2009 around the time of the “witch hunts”; however, his arrest was not thought to be related to that incident. The three men wore indistinctive clothing, and if they carried weapons, the family did not see any. Before the disappearance, the husband had been suggesting to his wife that they should consider moving to the Casamance area, where he had a job offer from a family member. The mother did say that something seemed to have been bothering her husband in the weeks prior to his disappearance, but he never disclosed the reason for his apparent unease.
My first response was to ask if they had informed the police or anyone, of what had happened. Sobbing over the phone, the mother told me that they went to the nearest police station in their area and reported the matter but were told by the police that they did not have her husband in their custody. Then they contacted some family friends whom they thought could help, but no one seemed to know what had happened, or where to even begin looking. The one person they could rely on worked with the NIA but was afraid of asking too many questions lest he became a victim, too.
I spoke to the mother on the phone for a while trying to collect as much background information on her husband as possible. I was told by the woman that her husband migrated to The Gambia from the Casamance area in Senegal and settled in their village before marrying her. The husband used to frequent Kanilai, Yahya Jammeh’s home village, and would spend weeks at a time there, doing work on Jammeh’s farm or other properties. The main conduits between the man and Jammeh were two senior military officers, both of whom were notorious for their unyielding loyalty to Jammeh. The woman informed me that her husband also used to travel between Casamance and Foni, selling whatever items he could lay his hands on for cash.
I came to understand that the woman I met with in my car was a stepdaughter to the man who had been forcefully disappeared and that he had no children of his own with the mother. I realized they were afraid to say too much about the disappearance because the area they lived in was still highly supportive of Yahya Jammeh, and they feared reprisals if anyone found out they were cooperating with or reporting the matter to the TRRC. It was obvious they did not want any publicity for their case, and the fear in the mother’s voice was unmistakable. The man’s family in Casamance were asking questions and claiming that his wife had something to do with the disappearance of her husband. Despite the scantiness of the information they provided, I told them I would do all that I could to get some answers for them, but that I could not make any guarantees. She asked again that I never share what she told me with anyone else. I gave my word before driving the young lady to an area where she wanted to visit some family.
I did all that I could in searching for their loved one throughout my time with the TRRC, but to no avail. I looked at police, NIA, and prison files, but his name was never listed on any such register (the NIA claimed they did not have registers for several years between 1994 and 2016). I tried, unsuccessfully, to access phone records from the year of his disappearance and I traveled to Foni where the man had lived to establish his last sightings, but due to the lack of witnesses and records, I am sad to say I left the TRRC without ever getting the family the answer they needed.
This case was just one of many disappearances the TRRC never properly dealt with given time limitations and other constraints we faced. I never got to meet the mother and only met the stepdaughter on two other occasions after that initial meeting in my car. That first case was typical of other cases of enforced disappearances where we failed to get much traction due to the paucity of records or the unwillingness of witnesses to cooperate. The enormity and complexity of the task before us at the TRRC would only sink in months later when we realized how poorly records were kept and how entrenched impunity was in The Gambia. One would think that individuals picked up by state agents would be tracked in some way such that one would be able to determine their whereabouts, but dictatorships operate by different rules. None of the detention places I visited had any record, whatsoever, of this individual.
Under Jammeh’s dictatorship, there never was a central database that tracked arrests or detentions of individuals. Even after the fall of the dictatorship, police stations still maintain a paper log of their activities, and these logbooks are not only easily manipulatable but sometimes are in the worst possible conditions, making it difficult to access necessary information. This appalling state of affairs must never be allowed to continue for it usually precipitates enforced disappearances. Access to government information as well as record keeping, especially digitalized records, must be the law. While I was at the TRRC, I would come to be involved in many more cases of enforced disappearances. This was only the first I came across.
(Certain aspects of this incident have been altered to protect the identity of the Victims per their request).
A veteran of the U.S. Army, Alhagie Saidy Barrow holds a BSc. degree in Criminal Justice from Tennessee State University and an MA in National Security Studies from the American Military University in Charles Town, West Virginia. Having served for over a decade with the US Military where he rose to the rank of Captain before resigning in January of 2014 with an honourable discharge, Barrow held various responsibilities in the military, including Victim Advocate. During his time in the military, his duties included conducting investigations through interviews, gathering facts, retrieving records, analyzing information, and writing reports and recommendations. He had been to various leadership schools in the U.S. military and holds diplomas in various courses. After leaving the military, he also worked as an investigator and security consultant for security organizations in the US and as a short-term contract field investigator in parts of Africa. He was the Director of Research and Investigations for The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission.