Gambian-Americans search for answers, reparations after Jammeh

The Gambia's Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission tours the US to speak to the country's diaspora.

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    Gambian-Americans search for answers, reparations after Jammeh
    Fanta Darboe-Jawara was detained and tortured by Gambian police and imprisoned for months [Ayenat Mersie/Al Jazeera]

    Washington, DC - Sometimes after a long day at work, Fanta Darboe-Jawara's ankles swell, bringing back memories of the painful way they twisted under her after she was shoved out of a police truck.

    On her left thigh, there's a dark line of scar tissue - the shadow of a police baton. And from time to time her fingers, from which two nails were extracted, seize up.

    Darboe-Jawara, a United States citizen, says she was tortured and detained for eight months in 2016 while visiting her birth country of The Gambia. She was accused of participating in an unlawful protest, but it was her last name that made her a ripe target. The uncle who had raised her was Ousainou Darboe, a prominent opposition leader, and dissent was not well-tolerated in the era of Yahya Jammeh, who led the tiny West African country for more than two decades after seizing control in a 1994 coup.

    Darboe-Jawara was arrested just outside of her uncle's house - away from the protest she was accused of participating in - and given a three-year sentence for assembling without a permit. But she was released after eight months, following Jammeh's surprise electoral defeat in December 2016 and his subsequent exile to Equatorial Guinea.

    She returned to her home in Maryland, reuniting with her husband and two daughters to whom she had not spoken in nearly a year, as confinement to The Gambia's infamous Mile 2 prison meant no phone calls. And while elated at her return, the challenges were far from over.

    "When I came back, we were of course behind on bills. Our mortgage was behind," now 48-year-old Darboe-Jawara said. Her credit score had plummeted as debts went unpaid, and insurance did not quite cover all the care her new injuries demanded.

    Darboe-Jawara is hopeful that The Gambia's Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, which started proceedings in January, might help. The commission, set up by The Gambia's new democratic coalition government, has been tasked with establishing an impartial detailed account of what happened during Jammeh's rule during which arbitrary detention, torture and disappearances were rampant.

    This week, the commission went to four US cities to engage the Gambian diaspora. The commission solicited questions, suggestions and asked victims like Darboe-Jawara for testimonies. Using these kinds of testimonies, as well as under-oath statements from accused perpetrators - mostly security officials and mercenaries - the commission will recommend to the government what should be done in terms of justice, amnesty and reparations.

    Gambian-American involvement

    It is not often that the word "reparations" is in the title of a truth commission and expectations are high as a result. Families lost breadwinners, kids could not afford school fees, people like Darboe-Jawara accumulated debt because of their detention, so monetary compensation would go a long way.

    "It demands a lot of resources - which we don't have at the moment," said commissioner Anna N'gulu Jones, so one major objective of the global tour is to raise money. So far, it has raised about $5,000, according to Musu Bakoto, the deputy executive secretary of the commission.

    The Gambia - diaspora  [Ayenat Mersi/Al Jazeera]
    Attendees of the commission's Maryland tour stop to photograph and live stream the event [Ayenat Mersie/Al Jazeera] 

    Gambian-Americans have been intimately involved in the commission already, thanks to the fact that nearly all of its proceedings are streamed live. At the commission's Washington, DC-area tour stop, hosted in a sprawling Maryland community centre, one woman said she secretly streamed proceedings during quiet moments in her government job; another found it harder to watch after seeing a childhood friend come forward as a perpetrator. In the commission's subsequent stop in Atlanta, Georgia, Gambian-American Ogis Gomez said, "I am not an avid watcher because some of the testimonies are very graphic. Every time I watch a couple of the episodes, I return - I have to cry."

    So far, the commission has taken the testimonies from more than a dozen Gambian-Americans, said Imran Darbo, the commission's outreach coordinator.

    Concerns over process

    Hundreds of Gambian-Americans showed up to the meetings, and several, including Darboe-Jawara, voiced their support for the commission, but also their concerns about its moments of toothlessness. 

    "When you listen to some of the people, they are lying under oath," she said, speaking about accused perpetrators. "People are lying and getting away with it. There should be some consequences."

    But determining a lie takes time, the commission's deputy lead counsel Horejah Bala-Gaye said.

    "When you want to recommend someone for lying … that is a criminal charge … we have to be able to show that this is the truth, and this is what they lied about. The commission needs to first make a finding of the truth - and it hasn't made any of those findings," the former International Criminal Court trial lawyer said.

    Another point of contention was that even after some people admitted to serious crimes - including murder - they were released.

    "My concern is - why is it that the state was allowed to release these people into the streets of Gambia where they can walk as free men?" Famara Sawaneh asked in Maryland asked.

    I can forgive the people who hurt me. But I don't know them. They need to come forward.

     Darboe-Jawara Darboe-Jawara

    The justice ministry, and not the truth commission, was responsible for these releases, commission representatives emphasised. And commissioners said they need time to determine guilt and decide what should be done about it.

    Also, it is hard to simultaneously pursue justice and the truth, said Bala-Gaye.

    "In other countries … they've had an obstacle. Because once they started pursuing justice, the perpetrators stopped coming to say what happened," she said. So, holding off on justice might translate into more people coming forward, and more victims hearing the truth of what happened to them or their loved ones.

    For Darboe-Jawara, hearing the truth is paramount.

    "My hope is for the truth. During my court time I used to look at officers saying in my mind, 'Was it this one? [who'd hit me],'" she said.

    After her release, she tried calling her mobile phone, which had been taken upon her arrest but never returned. The number worked, but it now came with a new image on messaging apps - one of a broad-faced man in a police uniform. She pulls up his picture periodically, whirling his face through her memories of her beatings, trying to figure out if he was there.

    "I can forgive the people who hurt me. But I don't know them. They need to come forward."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News