By Rohey Samba
An intergenerational listening circle for women
They all came at their own volition in response to an invitation that took months to confirm. An all-female-assembly of invited guests gathered to grace a monumental occasion in the history of their country. They assembled to finally have their say and be heard, after years of being denied a similar platform.
They were garbed in different outfits, fashion and styles. Some came in hippy-styled jeans, others in flowing boubou or three-piece suits, wearing several different head wrap styles and hairstyles. Their differences demonstrated the gaps in their ages and their different vocations and interests in life. At a close distance, they were normal women congregating at a known venue, at a specific time, on a humid day in September.
In their normalcy, they carried the burden of truth. They were invited by the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission to participate in its first intergenerational listening circle for women. The women’s-only listening circle came in response to the need for safe, respectable and meaningful engagement of women and girls in the transitional justice process in The Gambia.
The event was organised within the framework of the TRRC Act to promote public empowerment and the TRRC’s Never Again campaign. On its first edition of the Women’s Listening Circle, the TRRC was focusing on outreach and access to stimulate participation of women in a space designed to encourage and support female voices within the structures of violence and oppression perpetuated by the previous regime, for indeed women experience violence in different ways than men.
The event mobilised younger and older women to communicate openly and was used to reflect on the effects of human rights abuses and violations on women during the twenty-two years of former president Jammeh’s rule. The commission aimed to hear the voices of women, old and young, who wanted to tell their stories and in the process help the traumatised as well as affected communities restore trust, faith and dignity.
In a closed community where violations of women’s rights generate derision at the very least and stigmatisations for the most part, perhaps one can easily claim that women of The Gambia have the bleakest figures in these respects. In casting the net wide to ensure that every woman who has been subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment, arbitrary arrest or detention without trial, acts of torture, unlawful killings, sexual and gender-based violence was included and claimed ownership of the TRRC process, the commission sought to build trust and guarantee that what happened should not have happened and must not repeat ever again.
Thus the programme commenced at 5:30pm as scheduled with silent prayers. Administrative details about the event were stated by a UNDP rep, followed by a musical medley performed by Awa and Mariama to entertain the invited guests and help ease the tension in a room dented by what was anticipated to be a grim experience of recounting past and enduring sufferings for most of the invitees.
Not a level playing field
Taking cognisance of the fact that not everyone present in the gathering knew about the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, TRRC, its mandate to seek the truth about human rights violations, which occurred during former president Jammeh’s rule from 1994 to 2016 and its work to help ensure non-recurrence of dictatorship and human rights abuses in this country was explained at length.
The role of speaking out, which is at the core of the victim-centric approach and the ambition of the TRRC to ensure that women are part of the very fabric of the TRRC experience throughout its two-year mandate, was emphasised. Assuring the women of the benefits of speaking out about their sufferings to garner public acknowledgement of the wrongs they had gone through and the therapeutic role of speaking the truth on the victims themselves, the women’s only circle was considered as a safe place to affirm citizenship of each one of the women present, reminding them that “they really and truly mattered, no matter their stations in life were or their standings in their respective communities.”
A safe and respectful place to tell their stories
The women gathered in the intergenerational women’s circle began by introducing themselves. Fair representations of women from different works of life and from different regions in the country were present. Yet it was through the mere act of introducing themselves that many women broke down into sobs. They had suppressed their emotions for far too long.
The stop valves of their feelings were opened and the floodgates of tears poured through their eyes unrestrained even before they were able to recount their past experiences. They were not afraid of being vulnerable in front of each other, and thus they provided support to each other during the entire process of reliving very painful and difficult experiences. The masks of victimhood hoisted upon them without their consent were finally beginning to crack.
Nimble in the feet
Narrations about experiencing victimhood in different contexts followed the introductions. Since we are not a homogeneous society, as indeed we have issues of class, tribal and economic status divides among others, the different violations experienced were contextualised recognising government as duty bearers and the people as right holders.
A common understanding was drawn once the narrations began that impoverished and marginalised communities experience violence in different ways than those with more access to resources and assistance. The kernel of truth is that in The Gambia, experiencing victimhood in the context of poverty amplifies the onerous burden.
The situation of a widow left with five kids, who has access to resources and support from her family is not the same as that of a widow who has two kids and lives from hand to mouth, the sole breadwinner of her family killed or subjected to enforced disappearance or arbitrary arrest by the Jammeh government.
Narrowing the range of permissible lies
To encourage each other to speak up about their experiences, an old lady whose son disappeared during the Jammeh regime called the Women’s Circle a clinic. As a clinic, she coined that it provided a space to heal their individual wounds and collectively make for a healthy environment for the victims themselves and the nation moving forward.
She stated that without explaining one’s ailment, one would not be able to access the resources that would allow one to find a cure for ones ailment. She therefore called on anyone who had a burden to share, to make it known in the forum, so that Gambians can know their truth, and confront persisting denials, which seem to cover the weaker voices of victims of human rights abuses of the Jammeh era.
On that note the floor was opened for discussion.
Victims, mothers of victims, their wives and families began the discussion towards never again in a society in transition.
The mother of a victim explained that when one falls, one should not look down at where one had fallen, but must assess what had made one fall. She explained that the reason why Jammeh and his accomplices were able to commit all the atrocities they committed during his rule was because of a fundament flaw in the social fabric of Gambian society, which ultimately reduced everyone in The Gambia to the status of victim, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
She identified three types of victims of human rights violations and abuses in The Gambia and noted that they are found in every household in The Gambia. She explained the complicity of Gambians in Yahya Jammeh’s crimes by noting further that everyone in The Gambia knows or is related to someone who is killed, sexually assaulted or castrated from 1994 to 2017. She maintained that lack of social cohesion and support for one another assisted dictatorship and prolonged it.
She therefore called on every citizen of the Gambia to join hands to overcome the consequences of a brutal dictatorship, which has left an emotional and physical toll on the conscience of the nation. Striking an optimistic tone, she told the gathering that her son was dead and gone, but she was alive to carry on his legacy through the work of the TRRC, which was making that feat possible.
A mother of victim of the April 10-11 riots also spoke about the ordeal of losing her son. The woman, who is one of fourteen mothers of dead students registered by the Victims’ Centre, called on authorities to expedite the TRRC process, explaining that many mothers were denied justice for the loss of their children, who are very old now and may not live to see the end of the TRRC’s work should it be unduly prolonged.
A woman who worked in the civil service explained how she was sexually harassed in her workplace by her immediate boss, who stopped all her benefits including travels in order to make her yield to his demands. She explained how his actions made her work environment untenable for her and she had to quit the job as a result.
Spouses of victims also talked about their ordeals and the repercussions of losing their husbands. A mother of a three-year-old daughter recounted human rights abuses she suffered when incarcerated while on a visit to the court hearings of her husband, who was arbitrarily arrested.
She explained how she was imprisoned along with her month-old daughter and suffered inhumane and degrading treatment in addition to severe beatings by security personnel in her police cell. As a result of the beatings, she suffered great harm to her body and mental state causing her serious bodily injuries. She explained how after her ordeal she used to divide her baby’s pampers into two in order to pad up and contain her continuous menses, which were extended by the assaults on her body.
Perhaps the most harrowing narrations of brutality came from women activists and politicians caught by the security personnel in the course of their activities.
A politician reported how men in a green vehicle with tinted glasses continuously stalked her. She explained how she was stamped on her ribs with brute force by one of the men dressed in security outfit while another held onto her, which left her physically harmed and unable to do many everyday activities to this day.
A political activist who used different pseudonyms and went to great lengths to disguise herself, by resorting to make use of her dead husband’s ID card to buy numerous sim cards in different names, in order to explain the sufferings of Gambian people to the Diaspora recounted how she was also ran down by security forces with their vehicle, making her lose most of her teeth and causing her brain injuries and a broken leg.
The lady whose husband was killed by Jammeh was snitched on and her source of livelihood stolen from her in broad daylight by security forces. As a firewood and charcoal vendor, she explained that she returned from an errand one day only to find out that her entire stash of firewood and charcoal were stolen on the orders of men in a green pick-up with tinted glasses, and taken away in a loaded truck.
Other women activists/politicians were victimised following the Solo Sandeng-led fatal protests.
Account after account recounted the brute force and inhumane treatment of the women unlawfully apprehended and incarcerated by the security forces. The difficult part for most of the victims was that they were falsely accused by their fellow women for being part of the protests, which led to their arrests and detentions. One of the women claimed that she was out on an errand when she was arrested by the security forces and detained for being part of the protests, on account of information given by a young woman who lived in her own neighborhood.
Victims described how they were so badly beaten up after they were arrested that they started their menses on the spot, which persisted for weeks on end. Victims also recounted losing consciousness for days following their beatings. Amidst tears the narrations were centered around the slavish beatings and slapping by the security forces and their female accomplices, detonation of tear gas into their prison cells with inmates inside and all forms of degrading treatment meted on them. The emotions in the gathering were unmistakable at every corner of the curvilinear space created to enable everyone speak at the same level.
At the level of pain and emotional distress, there were no social strata. We were all women. Bound in sisterhood by our gender, our sex and our common satisfaction of being heard and seen in our own terms. Needless to say, “A society that doesn’t know its past is condemned to repeat it.”
In the end, we all agreed that TRRC bode well for peace and reconciliation in this country.