Thousands of Gambians Were Accused of Witchcraft and Tortured. Can Their Country Make Them Whole?

After Yahya Jammeh brutalized his people with witch hunts, torture, forced disappearances and more for two decades, the reconciliation process is at a crossroads

Thousands of Gambians Were Accused of Witchcraft and Tortured. Can Their Country Make Them Whole?
Omar Bojang was among the victims of Yahya Jammeh’s witch hunt campaigns and still suffers long-term health consequences. (Andrei Popoviciu)

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It was a Wednesday afternoon in December 2009 when Boubacarr Sibi heard the hypnotizing cadence of drums drifting through the window of his home in Jambur, a village in the small west African nation of Gambia. Sibi didn’t think much of the hubbub as it grew louder, until the thrumming was right at his door and several local witch doctors dressed in deep red tunics adorned with cowry charms, brandishing mirrors and beating drums, together with a squad of soldiers in green uniforms, barged into his house. They demanded he come with them to the town square, just across from the village mosque.

At first Sibi balked, but his wife feared what would happen if he resisted the soldiers — they were members of the Green Boys, a notorious vigilante squad serving Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s brutal and erratic dictator at the time. To calm her anxieties, he followed the soldiers and witch doctors down to the dusty square, where dozens of other villagers had been herded together.

As Sibi surveyed the crowd, the common denominator among them became clear: everyone there was politically active, and none supported Jammeh. In fact, most of them had signed a petition to reverse the appointment of a new village chief — a Jammeh lackey — circulated by the son of the local imam, a man named Omar Bojang. He was on the square, too. “I had influence over the community; they listened when I spoke,” Bojang told New Lines.

The insubordination had drawn the attention, and ire, of the dictator.

Shortly after the 5 o’clock prayer, a convoy of buses rolled up and the Green Boys forced Sibi, Bojang and nearly 60 other, mostly elderly, villagers on board. As they headed out of Jambur, Sibi demanded to know why they were being abducted.

“Because you’re witches,” responded the squad’s leader.

A sickening understanding washed over Sibi in that moment. The Green Boys had come with the witch doctors because their drums, according to local folklore, could lure in witches. Jammeh wanted those who had opposed him to suffer — and few things brought more stigma and mistrust upon a person in Gambian communities, where superstitions run deep, than being labeled a witch.

The buses trundled down rural roads to a farm. Sibi was dragged from the bus and into a room where one of the witch doctors was waiting for him. He was forced to undress and to bathe in a viscous, foul-smelling brew. The witch doctor overseeing his cleansing next poured a liter of another liquid out of a large barrel — a thick concoction with a head of light red foam. Terrified and in shock, and with the barrel of a gun pressing into his back, Sibi was forced to drink all of the bitter liquid, which was muddied with leaves and stringy roots.

“When you don’t have power, you obey — so we obeyed,” Sibi said.

After he finished drinking the concoction, he fell to the ground with a sharp stomach ache that instantly gave him diarrhea. The pain was so excruciating, he said, he began crying out in agony, but his words failed him — all that emerged was gibberish. Then he fell unconscious.

When he woke the next afternoon, it was as if from a nightmare. Still weak and terrified, Sibi was herded back onto the bus. The Green Boys shuttled the villagers back to Jambur, where they dumped the staggering, soiled men and women in the town square and made an announcement: “The witches are back.”

For more than two decades, Jammeh terrorized the citizens of Gambia with harebrained and brutal campaigns as he fought to maintain absolute control of the smallest country on the African continent. The Witch Hunt Exercise — what Sibi, Bojang and more than 1,000 others from across the country endured — was just a sliver of the abuses Jammeh inflicted. Enabled by a network of corrupt politicians, the dictator subdued his people with a mix of torture, sexual violence, medical experiments, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

The security apparatus detained, tortured and killed anyone who challenged him. Under the chokehold of Jammeh’s oppression, Gambians lived in fear, while thousands had their lives destroyed or were killed in the nation of just 2.7 million people.

Jammeh’s regime crumbled under the weight of his people’s will and international pressure in 2017, but, six years on, the search for justice for victims like Sibi remains a frustrating and unfulfilled quest. Despite public appetite to prosecute Jammeh and his henchmen, as well as the work of the country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which has been described as one of the world’s most efficient and transparent such organizations, Gambia’s fledgling democratic government has done little to accelerate the process to compensate and support Jammeh’s victims. What looks like a successful transitional justice initiative from the outside feels like an excruciatingly slow process for the victims, many of whom were left with life-altering medical conditions that need immediate and ongoing care, as well as an enduring stigma that has torn communities and families apart.

Jammeh’s downfall was swift and surprising. Throughout his rule, he had always managed to browbeat or bribe his citizens into reelecting him; if it appeared he would come up short, he would bus people in from neighboring Senegal to vote illegally and boost his numbers.

But in the lead-up to the 2016 election, a series of crucial missteps — a spate of inflammatory speeches, rolling out unpopular election reforms and the torture and murder of an opposition politician — galvanized Gambia’s previously scattered opposition parties to form a coalition against Jammeh which undid his decadeslong rule. The leader of that coalition was Adama Barrow, a real estate developer who once worked as a security guard in London. Barrow’s win came as a surprise to Jammeh, who had been surrounded by sycophants assuring him that he had the election in the bag. He tried to coerce the electoral commission and the media to ignore the results and declare him the winner, but he ultimately failed and fled to Equatorial Guinea.

After a harrowing start, and with international support, Barrow’s government was finally legitimized. In 2018, the new president was able to form the TRRC to investigate the crimes against humanity committed by Jammeh and his enablers. The commission was an independent body, separate from the government, tasked with finding out the truth about what happened over the preceding 22 years.

The commission’s hearings were broadcast live across the nation, and Gambians were glued to their TVs and radios, listening to testimonies from victims targeted by Jammeh’s military junta. It was the first time most Gambians were made aware of the true extent of his repression.

The TRRC released a report with recommendations for prosecution, reparations and reconciliation efforts in December 2021. Six months later, the government published a white paper accepting almost all of them. The recommendations were met with excitement and hope by Sibi and fellow victims, who were keen to see the government set things right after years of injustices. In comparison with other truth commissions, like those in South Africa or Sierra Leone, things were moving fast. But for the victims, more than a year since the white paper was published, seeing that the officials are still working on implementing the recommendations makes them wonder when — or if — they will see justice or remuneration that could give them a dignified life.

Now in his mid-50s, Sibi continues to struggle with impaired vision, stomach issues and debilitating nervous system damage. Eighteen of his fellow villagers did not survive the aftermath of the witch doctors’ poison. Access to proper medical care remains elusive, leaving him exhausted and unable to participate fully in his community.

Bojang, the imam, gave his testimony to the TRRC, which had a mandate and budget to provide victims with a percentage of reparations and medical help to which they were entitled. The government would then provide the remainder. He received $500 from the TRRC, of the $2,000 he was found eligible for — an amount that, even if paid in full, he thinks would not cover the full extent of his medical costs. Nor would it repay him for the years of his life that he has spent in agonizing pain.

Bojang struggles with daily stomach and leg pain as well as impaired vision, which prevents him from reading the Friday prayer. During the delayed justice process, Bojang’s son has been filled with frustration at seeing his father suffer while the government is entangled in bureaucracy. “I know who harmed my father; I see those people every day, living alongside us. If the government is not doing anything, I’ll take care of things myself,” he said. As they wait for justice to be served, victims and perpetrators often live in close proximity to each other. This has created a tense environment, which forebodes vigilante justice if the process continues to stretch out.

Sibi, who used to work at a local brewery, lost his job due to the stigma of being associated with witchcraft and has been working as a day laborer ever since. He received only $800 in reparations, which he describes as “meaningless,” considering the sum is only about twice what he makes monthly.

While the truth commission found over 1,000 people eligible for reparations, including medical care and opportunities to continue their education, its mandate ended after it published the recommendations. The responsibility to continue its work was passed on to the government. Yet since 2021, no additional reparations have been paid, and medical assistance has been paused.

That is because the government needs to pass reparations legislation and create an independent body to distribute the remaining reparations, said Kimbeng Tah, a senior official in the Ministry of Justice. A bill has been drafted and validated by civil society organizations, but officials say they also want to consult with victim communities before sending the bill to the General Assembly. The law has been in the works for more than a year, while victims with urgent medical, housing and financial needs are left in limbo. Last year, the government earmarked $2.5 million in its budget for reparations, but the year passed and victims did not receive the allocated funds, due to the delay in adopting the reparations bill.

“That money would have gone a long way in regaining confidence and really showing us that they are going to walk the walk and talk the talk,” said Sirra Ndow, a victims advocate and cofounder of the African Network Against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances. “But then, just like magic, the money disappeared.” Herself a victim (she is the niece of a Gambian businessman who was disappeared by Jammeh in 2013), Ndow believes that Barrow’s appointment of the dictator’s former enablers adds insult to injury.

To ensure his reelection for a second term in 2021, Barrow formed an alliance with Jammeh’s former party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC). Barrow appointed Fabakary Tombong Jatta — the current head of Jammeh’s APRC, who had long campaigned for the TRRC report to be thrown out — as speaker of the General Assembly, making him the third-most-powerful politician in the country. When the vice president suddenly died early this year, he became second in command. The deputy speaker and several current ministers are also former Jammeh supporters.

These appointments angered victims, who saw them as a way for the president to gain political support at the expense of the transitional justice process, which they say will be sabotaged by Jammeh loyalists. But Tah, of the Ministry of Justice, insists that having former Jammeh allies in power sends a strong message. “When the speaker presides over the enactment of the torture bill, it shows to those that still support Jammeh that he will be held accountable even by his former supporters,” Tah said.

Speaking from inside the Ministry of Justice in Banjul, after a meeting in which he was workshopping the soon-to-be-released implementation strategy for the legislation, Tah stressed that the government is taking a “holistic” approach to the country’s transitional justice process.

In May this year, the government unveiled its strategy. It extends until 2027 and outlines the precise measures and budgets needed to implement the TRRC recommendations. Several significant challenges lie ahead, according to the government, including the constraints posed by limited financial resources, the need to foster political will and the task of rebuilding public trust. Although there remains a risk of resistance from Jammeh supporters, it is considered relatively low in comparison with other challenges.

While the government’s strategy spans the next five years, Tah said a realistic timeline for achieving all the recommendations is at least a decade. Compared with other transitional justice processes in Africa, that puts Gambia at the leading edge in terms of efficiency and speed, though the timeline is longer than some victims have left to live. But even if the initial ramp-up seems promising, Gambians know that many governments that created truth commissions in countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Africa largely failed to bring about all the recommendations in a way that healed the wounds their fellow citizens suffered.

Tah said that, while they’re doing better than other transitional justice processes, victims should manage expectations, especially about money. The common narrative is to equate reparations and financial compensation, he said, but medical support and access to education can be as important as cash.

Yet neither Bojang nor Sibi nor hundreds of other victims in need of medical care have received assistance from the state beyond what the TRRC first gave them. All of them count on underfunded victims’ associations to support their medical bills. Younger victims, who missed out on their education, haven’t been provided with the opportunity to go back and finish their studies, while others live in meager housing, unable to sustain themselves financially.

Zainab Lowe-Baldeh, who works for the Women’s Association for Victims’ Empowerment, believes that, without organizations like hers, victims would die before the government takes action. “You can’t just fold your arms and watch people die; we just put in our own resources and we give it to the victims,” she said.

The Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations used to provide much-needed social-psychological support services to victims living with trauma. But now funding has dried up, and the program will be wound down if the organization cannot manage to find additional resources.

“There’s donor fatigue,” said Isatou Jammeh, one of the center’s cofounders and the daughter of Haruna Jammeh, the dictator’s brother, who was kidnapped and killed. Isatou started the center as a victim herself, after growing up without a father, stigmatized by her paternal side of the family. She received confirmation that her father and aunt had died at the orders of her uncle only after his ouster in 2017. She said the injustice she felt was too heavy just to sit around and wait for the state to act.

“It’s psychologically draining and overwhelming to deal with my own trauma, advocate for victims and have these conversations about accountability to make sure the government is doing the right things,” Isatou said. “It’s a lot.”

As groups like her center struggle for funding, the government continues to receive millions of dollars from international partners, including the European Union and the U.N. The money is spent on drafting white papers and crafting strategies that have yet to improve victims’ lives directly. But Tah said he makes sure that, for every tranche of funding received, some is reserved for civil society organizations. It is the duty of the organizations to apply for funding to the government if they want it, he said.

Progress on prosecuting those who aided Jammeh or executed his orders has also been slow. Tah, the deputy director of the ministry’s Department of Civil Litigation and International Law, is responsible for establishing the prosecutor’s office and the court that would bring Jammeh and his enablers to justice. He says that, of all the TRRC’s recommendations, prosecution will take the longest to complete.

“Despite taking a long time, we’re confident in our ability to prosecute,” he said. He has even run several mock cases against perpetrators and concluded that prosecution can succeed, despite the lack of evidence other than testimonies and the number of years that have elapsed since the crimes were committed.

There has been significant debate about how to structure the court to ensure the most effective prosecution. The government has been engaged in negotiations with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the economic bloc that helped aid the transition, to become involved in the trials. An ECOWAS partnership would grant the court authority to prosecute crimes such as torture and enforced disappearances, which are not covered by Gambian law. Salieu Taal, president of the Gambian bar association, who consults Tah’s ministry on the transitional justice process, has pressed for the court to be located in Gambia.

“We want it to be our process, to show that as West Africans we can address issues on our turf and on our own terms instead of going to the International Criminal Court, which we know has issues of bias,” Taal explained. “It should be Africans prosecuting Africans, and we should create our own legal tools to prosecute them at home.”

The compromise reached by the government was to establish a hybrid international court, led by Gambians but following international law, with the aid of the ECOWAS partnership. In February, Attorney General Dawda Jallow said this court will create a special prosecutor’s office to build the cases against the perpetrators.

Victims’ association leaders are not convinced that spending time and resources on prosecution is worthwhile, because it is unclear whether the government even has the capability to extradite Jammeh from Equatorial Guinea and prosecute his henchmen. “There are urgent needs that need to be addressed now,” stressed Lowe-Baldeh, the victims’ advocate.

As the wheels of justice turn slowly in Gambia, elderly victims like Sibi struggle to accept that justice may never come in their lifetime. This reality was brought into stark relief for villagers in Jambur in 2021, when they mourned the passing of three victims of the witch hunts who never saw justice served or received the reparations and medical care they were promised.

Jambur was once a close-knit community, where neighbors were considered part of the same family and, if you divorced your spouse, you weren’t allowed to remarry within the community.

For Arokey Bojang, another one of Jambur’s witch hunt victims, the stigma of being branded a witch within her community pains her even more than her considerable physical ailments. The accusations destroyed the intimate connections between the villagers, rifts that continue until this day. Many of the formerly accused have been unable to marry their children to anyone in the community because of lingering suspicions.

Arokey leads a difficult life. Since ingesting the witch hunt poison, she has been plagued with dizziness, fevers, headaches and seizures. The government’s inaction angers her.

“We don’t trust the government anymore,” she said.

No official government apology has been issued to the victims, and President Barrow has said little about the transitional justice process publicly. Taal, the head of the bar association, thinks the attorney general is doing a good job at being open about the process as a member of the cabinet, but he believes the president should take a more personal and vocal stance in promoting the process.

“If the president is vocal about it and speaks his support out loud, it will show commitment and it will take the process to a whole different level; it would be the apex of political will,” Taal said. “In this country, when the president speaks, people listen.”

Sibi’s heart no longer yearns for the prosecution of his perpetrators. The quagmire of political wrangling around the process has left him more tired than usual. Instead, he longs for his community to heal and for trust to be rebuilt, and for the state to help Jammeh’s victims with medical care and reparation payments, so they can finally live a dignified life.

“For me to forgive, I need something to be done — not just to tell me I need to forgive,” he said.

Mustapha Jallow contributed with translation.

This article was published in the Summer 2023 issue of New Lines’ print edition.

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