Breaking The Silence To Learn The 'Truth' About Ganbia's Former President : Goats and Soda In the West African nation of Gambia, people are transfixed by testimony about alleged abuses by former President Yahya Jammeh.

Why Everyone In Gambia Is Tuning Into A Broadcast About 'Truth'

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In West Africa, the Gambia is in the midst of a painful public reckoning over atrocities committed during the regime of former President Yahya Jammeh. In 1994, Jammeh came to power in a coup d'etat and fled into exile in 2017. The Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission began holding nationally broadcast hearings in January, and they have captivated the nation. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the Gambian capital of Banjul.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In Banjul, it's very easy to tell when the truth commission is in session. Everywhere you look, people are clustered around television. A woman in a betting shop listens on her cellphone. Cab drivers have the hearings blaring from the radios in their beat-up Mercedes taxis.

ABDOULIE NYANG: Every day, sir, every day. I'm listening to it right now.

BEAUBIEN: Thirty-two-year-old Abdoulie Nyang is sitting in front of his neighbor's shop holding a small black radio up against his ear.

NYANG: We thanking God that we have a commission that is set up to look into those past atrocities.

BEAUBIEN: The atrocities Jammeh's regime are accused of gruesome, numerous, and until recently, often hidden.

NYANG: We all fear him. We all fear him. Nobody was able to say or think to do something in Jammeh's era.

BEAUBIEN: The mandate of the truth commission is to investigate abuses committed under the Jammeh regime. It has the power to grant amnesty to perpetrators except for crimes against humanity. Now, former members of a paramilitary group called the Junglers are publicly testifying before the commission on how they carried out President Jammeh's reign of terror.


OMAR JALLOW: (Through interpreter) He said, Yahya Jammeh has given the order that they be killed, And they should be chopped into pieces.

BEAUBIEN: Speaking through an interpreter at a session in July, Omar Jallow detailed how he and several other members of the Junglers suffocated and decapitated two Gambian Americans in 2013. Family members of the two young men say they'd returned to the Gambia to set up businesses, but Jallow testified that President Jammeh said they'd come to overthrow his regime.


JALLOW: (Through interpreter) That was when we took them and put them inside the grave. And we buried them. And we left for home.

BEAUBIEN: Jallow, in military fatigues and a green beret, testified how, on President Jammeh's orders, the Junglers executed 56 African migrants and dumped their bodies in wells near the border with Senegal. Members of the paramilitary unit have admitted to the truth commission that they killed inmates at a local prison, suffocated a former top military official, murdered a prominent journalist, tortured political opponents, even killed a former ally of the president in his hospital bed. And they did all of this, they've testified, at the orders of Yahya Jammeh. Jammeh has always denied that these atrocities occurred.

The commission's lead attorney, Essa Faal, pushed another member of the Junglers, Amdou Badjie, on why he participated in torturing, kidnapping and killing people.


ESSA FAAL: When you are doing this, you knew that what you were doing was unlawful.

AMDOU BADJIE: (Foreign language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: Badjie, responding through a translator, squirms at the witness table.


BADJIE: (Through translator) I knew that it was bad, really, but we soldiers, whenever you are given a command by your seniors, you have to do it.

FAAL: But you know that you don't have to follow an unlawful or an illegal command.

BEAUBIEN: Badjie, also in a camouflage uniform, blinks rapidly. His eyes dart around the room, avoiding the gaze of Faal.


BADJIE: (Through translator) Yes, I know that, really. But when you refuse to carry out orders given to you by your senior, what befalls you is something very bad.

BEAUBIEN: As the hearing proceeds, Badjie eventually asks for forgiveness from two imams who he tortured. Madi Jobarteh, a longtime social activist in the Gambia, says even to him, someone who was following the abuses of the Jammeh regime closely, the testimony at the truth commission has been a revelation.

MADI JOBARTEH: I mean, it's all just shocking to me, even myself. I'm like, wow.

BEAUBIEN: Madi Jobarteh calls the process of the truth commission necessary.

JOBARTEH: In the testimony so far, you can see how ordinary youths, women, men, you know, religious leaders, ordinary folks just played a part in building this dictatorship that we had.

BEAUBIEN: He says people's silence propped up the brutal system. Jobarteh says Gambier's truth commission has lessons that extend far beyond former President Jammeh or this country. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Banjul, the Gambia.

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