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Why Everyone In Gambia Is Tuning Into A Broadcast About 'Truth'

Abdoulie Nyang listens to the hearings of the truth commission on the small black radio in his palm.
Samantha Reinders for NPR
Abdoulie Nyang listens to the hearings of the truth commission on the small black radio in his palm.

Abdoulie Nyang has a small black radio in his palm. He's sitting in front of his neighbor's clothing shop and listening to the hearings of the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission.

The mandate of the commission is to investigate crimes and human rights abuses allegedly committed under the regime of former President Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a coup d'etat in 1994. Jammeh flew into exile in Equatorial Guinea in 2017 — taking millions of dollars and a personalized Rolls-Royce with him from the low-income country. He left a horrifying legacy in his wake.

Gambia is a long, narrow West African nation of 2 million people that protrudes into Senegal. Across the capital, Banjul, it's very easy to tell when the truth commission is in session. Everywhere you look people are clustered around televisions. A woman in a betting shop listens on her cellphone. Cab drivers have the hearings blaring from the radios in their beat-up Mercedes taxis.

"I'm listening right now," says Nyang, 32.

"We are thanking God that we have a commission to look into those past atrocities. Now we are hoping that justice will prevail."

The atrocities Jammeh's regime are accused of are gruesome and numerous — and were often hidden.

"We all feared him," Nyang says. "No one was able to say or think something in Jammeh's era."

Often there were rumors about people being killed or tortured. But it was hard to know whether stories were true, he says. And people were terrified to ask about such things.

"People were disappearing," he says. "People were dying without [there] being any clue of where they've been or where they've been taken."

Now former members of a paramilitary group called the "Junglers" are publicly testifying at the commission's hearings about how they carried out Jammeh's reign of terror.

The commission has the power to grant reparations to victims and amnesty to perpetrators except for crimes against humanity.

Billboards in Gambia promote the ongoing hearings of the truth commission. This one is on the outskirts of the capital city of Banjul.
/ Samantha Reinders for NPR
Samantha Reinders for NPR
Billboards in Gambia promote the ongoing hearings of the truth commission. This one is on the outskirts of the capital city of Banjul.

Speaking through an interpreter at a truth commission hearing in July, Omar Jallow detailed how he and several other members of the Junglers suffocated and decapitated two Gambian Americans in 2013. Sitting behind a white table in military fatigues and a green beret, Jallow said that Jammeh ordered the killings. Family members of the two young men say they had returned to Gambia to set up businesses, but Jallow testified that Jammeh said they had come to overthrow his regime.

"We took them, put them inside the grave. We buried them. And we left for home," Jallow testified.

He went on to detail how the Junglers operated as Jammeh's hit squad. On the president's orders, he says, the Junglers executed 56 African migrants in 2005 and dumped them in wells near the border with Senegal.

Members of the paramilitary unit have admitted to the commission that they killed inmates at a local prison, suffocated a former top military official, murdered a prominent journalist, tortured political opponents, even killed a former ally of the president's in his hospital bed. And they did all of this, they have testified, on the orders of Jammeh. Before fleeing into exile Jammeh repeatedly denied that these atrocities had occurred.

The commission's lead attorney, Essa Faal, pushed another member of the Junglers, Amdou Badjie, on why he had participated in torturing, kidnapping and killing people.

"When you were doing this you knew that what you were doing was unlawful," Faal said to Staff Sgt. Badjie, who sat facing the commission.

Responding through an interpreter, Badjie squirmed at the witness table.

"I knew that it was bad," Badjie said. "But we soldiers, whenever you are given a command by your seniors you have to follow it."

Faal, the attorney, did not accept this. "But you know that you don't have to follow an unlawful or illegal command," Faal said.

Badjie's eyes darted around the room, avoiding the attorney's.

"Yes, I know that," Badjie said. "But when you refuse to carry out orders given to you by your senior, what befalls you is really something very bad."

As the hearing proceeded Badjie eventually asked for forgiveness from two imams whom he had tortured.

The commission will decide later whether to grant amnesty to some of the alleged perpetrators in exchange for their truthful testimony about the abuses of the past.

Madi Jobarteh, a longtime social activist in Gambia, says even to him, someone who followed the abuses of the Jammeh regime and called for political reforms, the testimony at the truth commission has been a revelation.

"I mean it's all just shocking to me," Jobarteh says of the hearings. "I'm like, wow!"

Jobarteh says he sees the commission as a very important step for the country to move past the Jammeh years. He calls the process "necessary."

"In the testimony so far you can see how ordinary youths, women, men you know, religious leaders, ordinary folks played a part in building this dictatorship that we had," he says.

People's silence, Jobarteh says, helped keep the brutal, repressive system in place. He says Gambia's truth commission has lessons that extend far beyond former President Jammeh or his country.

The hearings were on break last week but have resumed this week with more testimony from other members of the Junglers.

Lots of people in Gambia will be watching.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
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