Thirteen Years After

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Waking up on that fateful Monday morning of April 10th 2000, I had no inkling of how the day was going to unfold and the impending disaster that loomed in the air. Having had a late night at the Observer editing the stories for Mondays’ edition and waiting for any late night scoop I did not intend to go early to work.  I also wondered what breaking news we would have on that Monday.

I was then the assistant editor at the Daily Observer and Sheriff Bojang was the editor.  The Daily Observer was at the height of its heyday with an active, engaged team of reporters like the fearless Alieu Badara Sowe (Borom Nyaari Jassiyi) and erudite writers and contributors such as Debo Orike, Saihou Omar Gigo, Abdul Hamid Adiamoh, Pascal Eze, Auntie Bijou (Bijou Peters), SHM Jones.  The paper practiced an independent editorial policy, and, strove to provide accurate, impartial, well-balanced and objective stories for its readers even though it was threatened by the deportations, sackings and arrests of successive managers, editor, reporters and staff.

In my short stint at the paper, I had worked under four managers, Theophilus George, Sariang Ceesay, Andrew Dacosta and Sheriff Bojang and three editors Demba A. Jawo, Baba Galeh Jallow and Sheriff Bojang, myself being the last before I got pushed out.   All had different styles of leadership but what they brought to the paper with their different management and literary skills was to bring it to a high level of quality by motivating staff at all levels to give of their best.  There was unity and cooperation in the office as evident in the interactions between the management, professional, secretarial and printing staff.  Thus working late and coming in later the next day were no big deals as we enjoyed what we were doing and were supportive of each other.

Our sources of information were good but somehow none of the reporters had picked up or made known the information that the Gambia Student’s Union was going to stage a peaceful demonstration that Monday.  So for me it was just business as usual as I left the house for the Observer but like all journalists was hopeful that we would have something really newsworthy that would be of interest to the readers and would boost our newspaper sales.  Things were rather slow at the office as reporters had not started to come in with their stories yet so I decided to go to Banjul.  As soon as I got into Banjul I got the news of the demonstrations.

My first reaction was good this is breaking news.  I did not realize that this was indeed breaking news but of the worse type – devastating news that will lead to mayhem and tragic loss of lives of young and innocent people.  I immediately dropped all transactions and headed for the office to be available to receive the stories that would pour in.  As I got to Gambia High School I saw students rushing from the school to the opposite side of the road.   I realized that this was serious business.  The students were indeed ready for action. I thought of my cousins who had left for school as they also were unaware of the demonstration.  I stopped at Ndow’s School and dropped them home then proceeded to the Observer which was now agog with action.

Telephones were ringing and some of the reporters had already come in to report on incidents that they had witnessed.  I knew that it was going to be a long and interesting day and braced myself for a long haul.   I did not at this stage realize that this was going to be one of the most vexing episodes in the history of student demonstrations in The Gambia and that it was going to end in bloodshed and death.  I called my mother to find out how she was.  She informed me that she was fine but was worried about her staff who had gone to Banjul on an assignment.  She was also worried about what she saw as she had seen a unit of soldiers dressed in battle gear fully armed from Fajara Barracks running down the Bakau New Town Road towards the scene of the student demonstrations.  This worried her greatly as she could not understand why armed soldiers should be deployed to put down a student’s demonstration.  Staff of the Observer confirmed my mother’s story as they had also seen seemingly battle pass by the Daily Observer offices into Bakau New Town Road.

After speaking to my mum, I called my aunt in Kanifing.  Her home is at close proximity to Latrikunda School and there was a lot of noise in the background.  I could hear the pelting of stones, the shouts and cries of angry people and my aunt informed me that things had started to get violent.  She cautioned me to be careful as it did not seem that the peaceful demonstrations would end peacefully.  Journalists always want to be where the action is but in this case I had to stay in the Observer so that I could receive the news from the people on the ground.

Reports started to come in that the students had met with the Chief of Army Staff, Badjie and had asked him to get out of his car.  They removed his cap and made him walk some distance before allowing him to go.  Just this incident alone was enough evidence to prove that the students were not violent but were only seeking redress for two issues of great concern to their personal securities and protection.  Two of their peers had been harmed.  One was the beating and torture of Ebrima Barry by fire service officers which resulted in his death.  The other was the rape of a thirteen year old school girl by paramilitary officers at the Independence Stadium.  The Daily Observer had actually run both stories.  Unhappy about the outcomes of the investigation of both cases The Gambia Student’s Union (GAMSU) that had the responsibility to safeguard the interests of their membership and all students in the country organized a peaceful demonstration to bring their case to public attention.

GAMSU had requested a police permit to hold the public protest. This request was denied. Realizing it was their constitutional right to protest, the student leadership called its members to peacefully march toward the capital city of Banjul. This was their intention but they were viciously attacked by security forces who tried to dispel them with guns, tear gas and other methods of putting down riots.  The students resisted and it resulted in a raging battle between students in the Serekunda area to the Westfield Junction towards the Gambia Technical Training Institute.

The first report of shooting came in.  Omar Barrow a Red Cross volunteer/radio journalist was killed by a stray bullet in the grounds of the Gambia Red Cross Headquarters.  Omar had gone there simply to carry out his civic and humanitarian duty.  The practice for Red Cross Volunteers is to group together in times of crisis so that they give first aid to those who need it and evacuate the more serious cases to the nearest health facility.  He went there to offer help and lost his life instead.  Omar had recently married and had a young baby, named after a very close friend of mine, Fatou.  News of his shooting was received with shock as Omar was a very familiar face at the Daily Observer.

Even before we internalized this heart rending news reports of other shootings started to come in.  The horrific reports of the brute force that was being used were unbelievable.  In addition to the killings, beatings and sexual assaults of female students there was also large scale arrests of students. Anyone in a school uniform was arrested.  They stormed schools and scoured classrooms, went into homes dragging out the students they could find and threw them into their trucks to be driven to the nearest police station.  Scenes at GTTI and MDI were even more horrendous.  Students that were in class were rudely interrupted, beaten up, stripped naked bayonets used in the vagina of the girls.  Wounded and bleeding both male and female students were herded like cattle into trucks and taken into police custody.  They were put into cells without being treated for their wounds and denied access to their families.

There was a public outcry against the atrocities that were being inflicted on the demonstrators and non-demonstrators alike.   Finding a student in a class within an educational setting was not only a gross violation of their rights lives but also of education regulations.  Any student who registers in a school and is registered in a school is under the protection of the school for the period that the school is open for official business.  This was not the case on that day.  The schools and the colleges did not give the students the required protection.  The administrators stood by helplessly and watched the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of their students.  Parents also helplessly allowed their children to be dragged out of their cars to be taken away to unknown police destinations.

Not me however.  I responded with alacrity when Catherine, the then Secretary at the Daily Observer called out, “Ndey come quickly they have taken your sister.”  I looked over the verandah and saw my cousin Marie, whom I’d dropped home earlier in the hands of a soldier.  I flew down the stairs pulled her out of his hands and said to him: ‘she goes nowhere she is my sister”.  Taken aback by the audacity of my action the soldier let her go and I quickly pulled her after me up the Observer stairs to my office.  It would have been disaster if the soldier had come after me because there were several school children in the office premises whom I had harboured.  Luckily he didn’t and all the staff heaved a sigh of relief as the consequences would have been grave not only for the children but for the Daily Observer management.  However, that was the Observer of 2000, solidarity and support.  They knew the risks that were involved in my allowing school children to take temporary refuge in my office but this was a risk that they were willing to take as I had taken the action and they stood by me.  None of them complained, some of them gave the t-shirts underneath their shirts to the boys and not one of them alerted the security officers that almost a dozen school children were hiding in the Daily Observer premises.

Having reached the safety of my office and finding that there was no one in pursuit I now vented my anger on the day’s events on Marie.  Turning on her, I asked her what she was doing out in the streets during such a turbulent period and after I had made sure that they had got safely home.  Sobbing bitterly but I think more out of relief that she had been saved she explained that she was going to buy things for her cookery lesson next day.  I told her that she was out of her mind if she thought that there would be school the following day.  I asked her where my Mother was when she was going out.  She told me that my mother had tried to dissuade her but allowed her to go when she insisted.  She had escaped arrest narrowly but my niece (the daughter of a paternal cousin) was less fortunate and had to spend a fortnight in Serekunda police station in a cell with boys and other criminals. A member of the GAMSU leadership, she cried incessantly and refused to eat until her release from custody.

Coming back to the 10th April, Radio 1 FM offered a space for people to vent their anger and air their opinions.  Several people went to the radio station to speak in support of the students.  Others raised their voices against the students describing them as unruly and indisciplined.  Emotions ran high but the highlight of the evening was a televised address by the Vice President Isatou Njie Saidy, putting the blame of the violence on the students and accused them of shooting first, said they burnt down buildings and finally acknowledged the death of fourteen students.  How could students without guns be the first to shoot?  If they fired first how come no security officer died but only the students?  These questions remain unanswered just like the two incidents which led to the students’ demonstrations.

The strong divisions that split society over the student demonstrations were also translated into homes.  As news went round that the children were being killed some caring family members went round to visit their families just to check if everything was okay.  One of the people who embarked on this charitable act was a woman who went to visit her sister.  She said to the sister “I have just come by to see how things are with you.  The situation of the children is quite worrisome so I have come to check if yours are okay”.    The sister’s reply was most unexpected.  She retorted that the children got what they deserved.  They wanted to spoil the country and this was unacceptable.  The sister was taken aback.  She rebuked her sister and said “how can you talk like that. Other people’s children are lying in the mortuary and all you have to say is that they deserved to die. I am sorry that you my own sister can think and talk like that.”  She took her leave and left greatly perturbed that her sister could be so heartless.  At that time none of them knew that one of the bodies lying in the mortuary was the son of the hard hearted woman.

Later that evening when her son did not come home she started to make enquiries. She looked for him in all the places that she knew he used to frequent.  He was nowhere to be found.  She tried the police stations to no avail.  Someone suggested the health facilities and eventually she found her son at the mortuary in Banjul.   Weeping and wailing she called her sister.  The caring sister turned out to be just as unsympathetic.  She told her sister “you did not care about someone else’s child, why should I care about yours.   Is the pain that you are feeling more acute than the pain that the other mothers are feeling?”  She hung up on her sister and despite pleas of family members refused to attend the funeral or offer her comfort in anyway.   She was too traumatized by her sisters’ callous attitude to other people’s travails.

The incident between the two sisters shocked many as did the brutality that continued to the 11th April.  GAMSU had planned the demonstration well and in-spite of the severity of the crackdown had not called it off.  Students in other parts of the country came out in solidarity with their comrades.  They too were quelled mercilessly.  News reports came of a student who was killed in Brikamaba.  Others were detained.  Parents in the rural areas showed more gumption than their urban counterparts and put up some resistance to protect their children.  A state of emergency was declared and all schools closed.  The government maintained its story and unrepentant stance.  The truth was that they believed the demonstrations were politically motivated.  This was an insult to the leadership of GAMSU who were only doing what they had to do.

A Coroner’s inquest was opened, reporters such as Alieu Badara Sowe were relentless in their pursuit of the news but faced resistance.  The report was never made public and the Gambia Government gave a blanket amnesty to everyone who had committed violent acts against the demonstrators resulting in their death or maiming.  The courageous student leaders never gave up and fought for the release of their colleagues who were still in detention, weeks after the actual events.  The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD), chaired by Muhammed Silleh, then Amnesty coordinator in The Gambia, Paps Emmanuel Joof, Fatou Jagne, Satang Jobarteh, Mary Small, Sheik Lewis, Lawyer Bory Touray and my mother Adelaide Sosseh and others was formed to seek redress for the rights of the students whose rights were violated.

The NCHRD documented some of the horrendous crimes including rape of some of the girls, the lawyers within the group were to take up a case on behalf of the victims.  Just before this, victims, came in with their parents and stated they preferred not to pursue the matter further.  They called it an act of God.  The truth is they feared reprisals.  The reprisals that the GAMSU student leaders and the NCHRD faced until some of them had to leave the country.  Contrary to Gambian culture the names of the fallen heroes of the 10th and 11th April are not commemorated on GRTS or the private press.  They have simply slipped into oblivion.  Omar Barrow’s daughter is now a teenager, her father cruelly taken away from her.

Redress is still not late.  In a recent documentary on France 24 Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch praised the tenacity of victims and their families in bringing tyrants to justice after several years of them getting away with the crime.  Keeping the memory of the darkest days in student’s life alive in The Gambia means that the event will not be forgotten.  The argument that if perpetrators are threatened with prosecution they will not relinquish power, or will undermine a new democracy, deserves attention but is not a stumbling block that cannot be surmounted.  I am sure that if we persevere we will break the culture of silence that is destroying our country and will emerge to speak with one voice against dictatorship in The Gambia.

Ndey Tapha Sosseh

Secretary General

Coalition For Change Gambia (CCG)

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