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‘Chopped to pieces’: Former dictator’s hitmen confess to murder and walk free in Gambia

By Danielle Paquette | Washington Post |

BANJUL, Gambia — She had wondered for years how her son died. Then the confession came on YouTube.

Yahya Jammeh ruled The Gambia for 22 years
Yahya Jammeh ruled The Gambia for 22 years

“Chopped into pieces,” said a former hit man, who told a makeshift courtroom that he was obeying orders from the ex-president.

Ya Mamie Ceesay, 62, watched with dry-eyed shock on her Samsung phone screen. But numbness turned to fear this month when authorities let the self-identified killer walk free until a national probe ends next year – a chance at amnesty in exchange for telling the truth.

“I’m scared to see him in the street,” Ceesay said. “I’m also worried someone might kill him.”

Everyone knows what he did, she said, because everyone seems to be glued to Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission hearings on television, Facebook, Twitter – anything that carries a live stream.

What started as an investigation into the human rights abuses of Yahya Jammeh – the dictator who ruled Gambia for 22 years before fleeing to Equatorial Guinea in 2017 – has become an internet phenomenon in the seaside West African nation of roughly 2 million.

Since the hearings began in January, Jammeh has been linked to the deaths of more than 70 people, including political opponents, businessmen, a woman he is thought to have impregnated and a ship full of African migrants.

More than 100 victims and accused perpetrators have taken the witness chair in a converted beach hotel the dictator once owned, implicating him in kidnappings, torture and murders.

The testimonies, which are expected to run through next year, could build evidence against Jammeh, according to the country’s attorney general, who said the country isn’t ready to prosecute the exiled leader.

Gambia modeled the Truth Commission after South Africa’s inquiry into the apartheid era and Rwanda’s reckoning with its 1994 genocide. Both undertakings offered amnesty to criminals as the countries tried to heal. Both moves sparked outrage.

But unlike previous transitional justice efforts – nearly three dozen truth commissions have played out in some form across the globe since the 1980s – Gambia’s investigation is unfolding in the age of social media.

Supporters say the online frenzy helps investigators find witnesses and keeps the population informed as more Africans gain access to smartphones, while critics note it could stoke unrest or sway how suspects are prosecuted.

“If we do not encourage them to come forward, the victims will never know the truth of what has happened to their loved ones,” said Ba Tambadou, Gambia’s justice minister and attorney general. “We do not want to arrest everyone and send the message that they are doomed either way.”

Investigators will decide next year who gets immunity and who gets punished.

“I understand this is emotional,” Tambadou said, “but we cannot determine at this stage who bears the greatest responsibility for these atrocities.”

Tambadou’s decision to release members of Jammeh’s former hit squad, known as the Junglers, set off a fierce debate, which is playing out in market stalls and Facebook comments.

“They are capable of doing anything,” said Aja Jatta, a 26-year-old security consultant, perched on the steps of a Chinese massage parlor. “This isn’t safe.”

“It’s fair,” said Abdoulie Niange, a 35-year-old grain seller, hanging outside his concrete storefront. “When you get a command, you have to do your command. Obey and complain later.”

Baba Galleh Jallow, executive secretary of the Truth Commission, said the Internet is sparking a healthy conversation. An educated democracy, he said, is less likely to elect another dictator.

“It has enabled the widest possible coverage of our work,” he said.

Jallow, a former journalist whom Jammeh forced into hiding, is running the project while on leave from his teaching position at La Salle University in Philadelphia, where he waited out the last years of the strongman’s reign.

He wants everyone to be involved as the nation rebuilds, and social media facilitates easier participation. Someone with WhatsApp in a rural village, for instance, can instantly send a tip to investigators.

“Overall,” he said, “I would say it helps us more than it hurts us.”

Similar endeavors in the past failed to reach villagers outside of cities, who often lacked electricity, said Jamie O’Connell, co-founder of the International Professional Partnerships for Sierra Leone, a nonprofit that assisted the West African nation with its early-2000s probe into war crimes.

Now more people are pulled into the conversation.

“That may be accelerating the community dialogue around these things,” said O’Connell, who lectures about transitional justice at Stanford University. “It can also amplify and sharpen emotions.”

Attention on the Truth Commission surged earlier this month when three Junglers – Malick Jatta, Omar Jallow and Amadou Badjie – testified they were ordered over the years to kill two Gambian American businessmen, a prominent newspaper editor, nine death row inmates and 56 African migrants whose boat landed on the country’s shore, among others.

“Our team was a hit squad for Yahya Jammeh,” said Badjie, wearing camouflage army fatigues. “We had blind loyalty.”

Fatou Gaye, a program manager for the Gambian Red Cross, sat in the hearing room, trying not to sob.

Pictures of victims lined the walls: an activist who said the Junglers shocked her with an electric cattle rod, a businesswoman who said she’d been whipped after accidentally walking near a protest, a man who said Jammeh’s people forced him to stop taking his HIV medicine and instead try the ex-president’s bogus herbal remedy.

Gaye, 56, picked a middle-row seat, about 10 feet away from the cameras, watching as another Jungler, Jallow, confessed to strangling her brother, Abdou.

“I looked at Omar and I felt sad,” she said. “We all know how brutal Jammeh is. How sadistic. He could have killed their families if they didn’t do it.”

People disappeared without clues during Jammeh’s reign. Abdou had found some success selling computer parts, but he wasn’t rich. Jallow told the Truth Commission that he’d heard Abdou was a rebel leader – “a big lie,” Gaye said.

Hearing Jallow confess wasn’t the worst part, she said. The ex-soldier apologized. He showed remorse. She doesn’t want to bump into him, but she doesn’t hate him.

Her heart aches most when she’s home alone, staring at her phone.

“The one thing that haunts me most are all the people on the internet saying lies about what’s been happening,” she said. “Someone, somewhere coming out saying what the Junglers are saying is a lie.”

Some people still support Jammeh, she said, and see this all as fake news.

Ya Mamie Ceesay, who lost her son to the Junglers, said this chatter makes her want to stay inside. She doesn’t know who believes what.

She keeps photos of her second-born on her coffee table. She loves his shy grin.

Alhaji Mamut Ceesay, a father of two, moved to the United States for school. He got a job at Chevron in Houston and had just finished his MBA before returning to Gambia in 2013 to launch a computer services company.

His business partner was his best friend: Ebou Jobe, another Gambian American who had worked his way up at Walmart.

The pair cashed in their retirement savings. They rented an apartment. They began meeting with potential investors. Then they vanished.

“I had a dream my son had been taken by soldiers,” Ceesay said on her floral couch in Banjul, the capital city. “I asked to see his back. I saw marks like he had been whipped.”

Weeks later, someone at the U.S. Embassy in Banjul contacted her. They told her Jammeh’s team probably had kidnapped and killed her son and his friend, she said.

She waited for news. She watched the Truth Commission hearings.

The answer arrived in late July, when Jallow, the Jungler, took an oath and sat in the witness chair. He wore his army fatigues.

He described a message from his old boss.

“He told us that there were two Gambian Americans who came from America to overthrow the government of Yahya Jammeh,” Jallow said.

Then the order.

“Yahya Jammeh has given instruction that we kill them and chop them into pieces.”

Ceesay said it’s difficult to express her pain. “It’s terrible,” she said softly. “Terrible.”

She stopped watching the hearings. She wants to turn off her electronics, but it’s hard to look away from social media.

“Believe me, every day you’re listening,” she said. “Every day you’re hearing horrible stuff about your loved one.”