Following a successful virtual training on the use of forensic sciences in the search for the Missing conducted on October 20, 2022, the ministry of justice and stakeholders embarked on a four-day assessment mission in The Gambia.
The process was led by the African Network against extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, Aneked Gambia Chapter, in collaboration with the ministry of justice and in partnership with two members from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and the University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights Clinic (EAAF-GHRC),
The mission was set against the need for greater sensitisation, awareness, and training relating to the proper forensic investigation of human rights violations, to ensure evidence preservation, the possibility of scientific identification, and the return of remains to families, as well as the determination of cause, manner, and circumstances of death in situations relating to mass graves.
It may be recalled that in April 2019, the truth, reconciliation, and reparations commission, TRRC, announced that the remains of seven persons, believed to be soldiers, who were summarily executed and buried in November 1994 at the Yundum Army Barracks in a mass grave, were exhumed. The remains of these persons have been in storage at the morgue at the Edward Francis Small Teach Hospital, (EFSTH) since then and have not been identified, leaving loved ones distraught and in a perpetual state of trauma.
During the mission, the team undertook bilateral meetings with key stakeholders to discuss, among other things, expertise and logistical requirements for a proper forensic investigation, including security challenges and operational needs, a forensic science information-sharing and education workshop that provided basic information about the process and technical expertise involved in forensic investigations, basic training on DNA analysis and antemortem data collection, and an assessment of the feasibility of conducting forensic investigations to assess the cost and expertise needed to identify and conduct a full analysis of the remains recovered from Yundum Barracks in April 2019 by the TRRC, and the possibility for further exhumations or investigations should they be required.
The mission also engaged with a broad range of actors relevant to possible forensic investigations, including family members of the victims of the November 11th, 1994 attacks, state prosecutors, lawyers, doctors, the Gambia Police Force, local forensic experts, and the University of The Gambia, professors, and lecturers, to identify capacity needs and gaps not only in relation to forensic investigations of human rights violations but also in terms of building sustainable expertise for the day-to-day forensic investigation needs of the country.
“We want to bury them in our Islamic way, but we cannot do that if they are not identified.” M Sillah, brother of Cadet Amadou Sillah, one of the November11, 1994, victims said.
“Capacity is one of our biggest challenges,” Commissioner Amie Nyassi, Gambia Police Force, said.
A key concern identified during the assessment mission was the urgent need to conduct antemortem interviews and take DNA samples from the close relatives of the November 11, 1994, victims, many of whom are elderly. Therefore, following this mission, Aneked, together with family members of the November 11 victims and the competent State authorities, will begin discussions on a DNA sample and antemortem data collection exercise.
This is expected to greatly increase the possibility of identification of the remains of those exhumed, and the possibility for families to have closure and dignified burials.
It is also hoped that the outcome of the mission will close the capacity gaps of the relevant actors in the search and identification of the Missing as well as inform strategies that will be used to kick-start the search and identification of the remaining scores of victims of human rights violations identified by the TRRC that are still missing.