In a new Gambia, the prison doors begin to swing open

Carley Petesch
Associated Press

Banjul, Gambia — Gambian soldiers picked up Tijan Barrow, beat him with their guns and threw him into a cell at the notorious National Intelligence Agency prison. His alleged crime: Creating and selling T-shirts for the opposition.

In the final days of his crumbling rule, defeated leader Yahya Jammeh turned again to the tactics that human rights groups had long accused his government of using against opponents during his more than 22 years in power.

Now, after Jammeh’s weekend flight into exile, the country’s prison doors are starting to swing open.

On Saturday, as Jammeh departed and a new democratic era began in this tiny West African country, Tijan and a number of others were released. Officials with the incoming government vow that more will follow.

“All political detainees without trial to be released immediately,” the spokesman for the coalition backing new President Adama Barrow, Halifa Sallah, announced Tuesday. He did not say how many people might be freed, but he encouraged victims’ families to come forward.

It is believed that some were killed in prison under Jammeh. Tijan feared he might join them.

“To be quite honest, my life was at risk,” he said, recalling the soldiers’ threats. Because he shared the same last name as Barrow, who defeated Jammeh in the December elections, he would spend the rest of his life in jail, they told him.

He spent just a few days.

A dozen or so people like Tijan were rounded up in the final weeks of Jammeh’s rule, as he tried to cling to power while challenging his election loss. He finally gave in after intense diplomatic efforts by regional leaders, while a West African military force was poised to oust him if negotiations failed.

His departure has been cheered by many Africans who continue to live under leaders who refuse to give up power and treat opponents harshly.

Barrow this week is expected to return to Gambia after being inaugurated last week in neighboring Senegal for his safety.

That prisoners are already being released is a sign that the country’s security forces recognize their new leader. “It shows the potential for a new Gambia in which these disappearances don’t happen,” said Jim Wormington, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Hundreds of Gambians disappeared during Jammeh’s rule. Omar Malleh Jabang was one of them.

Jabang, who knew Jammeh as a young man and once served as his protocol officer, later became a strong supporter of an independent candidate and, ultimately, of the coalition that backed Barrow for the presidency.

In November, Jabang was taken by four men in a pickup truck with tinted windows to a house where he was thrown into a tiny room with planks that covered the window.

He shook as he recalled his imprisonment. He was never told why he was arrested, though it did not come as a surprise.

At one point, he said, his captors wanted to take off his handcuffs, but they wouldn’t open. “So they cracked a joke to say they are going to cut my hands to take it off,” he said.

Jabang managed to respond: “Oh that’s fine, cutting my hands would be quicker.”

It was at that moment, when his captors laughed, that he knew he had a chance to survive.

Later, detained at the National Intelligence Agency headquarters, he found his interrogators were as curious as he was about the upcoming presidential election and the opposition coalition’s chances.

“They knew if things should change, they were going to be answerable to a lot of things,” Jabang said. “I had a clear conscience.”

The men who detained him worked for the Jungulars, Jammeh’s notorious personal military of some 50 officers, who reportedly went into exile with him in Equatorial Guinea.

While Jabang wasn’t tortured during his time at the prison, he teared up recalling the young boy who shared a cell with him, who arrived brutally beaten and crying for his life.

Jabang, like many Gambians, is confident that his country will change under its new leader. Democratic institutions will be put in place, the constitution will be reformed to defend people’s freedoms and the security forces will be reformed.

He and his countrymen are now searching for the others who disappeared during Jammeh’s long rule. Some, they fear, might be dead.

“Because of this man and his ways, people are still on the balance,” Jabang said.