The country’s Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission has opened hearings into abuses carried out during former president Yahya Jammeh’s more than two decades in power. He is accused of killing journalists, torturing and killing political opponents, and sponsoring a campaign that allowed so-called “witch doctors” to abduct hundreds of people and force them to drink unknown substances.
The hearings in the capital, Banjul, will give alleged victims of Yahya Jammeh’s regime an opportunity to voice their grievances publicly.
Jammeh ruled Gambia from 1994 until January 2017. He is accused of killing journalists, torturing and killing political opponents, and sponsoring a campaign that allowed so-called “witch doctors” to abduct hundreds of people and force them to drink unknown substances.
His paramilitary unit, the Junglers, was known to be particularly brutal. They summarily executed more than 50 Ghanaian, Nigerian, and other West African migrants in July 2005, according to Human Rights Watch.
Ebrima Chongan, who was senior commander of the gendarmerie at the time of the 1994 coup when Jammeh came to power, was the first to testify.
Chongan began by recounting the day of the coup and how he refused to take part.
“Afterwards, Yahya Jammeh came and others. They had their rifles. I thought that at any moment they would come for me,” he said.
Shortly after the coup, Jammeh’s officers did come for him.
Chongan was locked up in what would become Jammeh’s notorious Mile 2 Prison for three years.
Chongan alleges he was tortured there by Jammeh’s officers.
They used physical violence, and conditions at the prison were inhumane, he said.
“And you have the rats. You know you have to fight with the rats for the food. You know Mile 2 is the only place I saw the rats; they even eat soap,” he said.
Chongan is one of many hundred who are expected to testify.
The Amnesty International campaigner for West Africa, Marta Colomer, says the hearings are important steps to achieving justice in the small West African country.
“This is a sign as well of the strong commitment of the government to break with the systemized human rights violations that Gambians have suffered for twenty two years,” said Colomer.
After losing power, Jammeh fled to Equatorial Guinea.
A video of Jammeh and Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang dancing together on New Year’s Eve surfaced last week, raising doubts that Obiang would ever extradite Jammeh to Gambia to face justice.
Colomer said despite the video, these hearings mark efforts to hold Jammeh accountable, whether in Gambia, Equatorial Guinea or another country.