In the six years since the start of the transitional process in The Gambia, victims have prominently featured in the revelations that have many times shocked Gambians and the world as the full extent of the brutality of dictator Yahya Jammeh’s regime unfolded.
In many cases, the attention that victims, who included spouses, parents, and other relatives, attracted often competed with that accorded to the perpetrators as some of their shocking crimes were revealed.
However, one group of victims has remained in the background, with little attention paid to what they have suffered. This group includes the children in the lives of the victims of the human rights violations that were meted out during the 22 years of Jammeh’s reign. These are the children connected to the scores of people who suffered extrajudicial killings, disappearances, detentions, and torture.
Some of these were babies, young children, or even teenagers when their parents, guardians, or close relatives were killed, tortured, or detained, but they did not escape the effects of those traumatising and defining moments in their lives.
When a parent who is a family’s sole provider is killed or imprisoned, children are the first to suffer because their basic needs such as education, housing, clothing, and even meals suddenly go missing.
This was the fate of the young dependants of the more than 2,000 victims registered by the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) after it completed its sittings and presented its final report to the Gambian government. The victims’ children and families also became victims as they were traumatised as a result of what they suffered.
Remembering the death or disappearance of a parent is traumatising, and so is being unable to pursue your education or going hungry because of the absence of your guardian.
This was the fate that Tutty Jobe and her family suffered when her father, Baba Jobe, was arrested in 2003 and imprisoned for nine years the following year.
Tutty, who was only six years old at the time, still remembers the sudden change in circumstances and the hardship her family had to contend with, with her mother struggling to pay for even the most basic of their needs.
“I had to manage with one set of school uniforms for a full grade, along with worn-out shoes. We couldn’t afford to buy textbooks since my mother struggled to pay my school fees. There was no one to support her,” she said 25-year-old single mother of twins during our interview.
The change must have been drastic because Baba Jobe, a former member of Parliament and Majority Leader of the then ruling party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), in the National Assembly, was by any count an important person in The Gambia and must have provided comfortable living for his family.
However, the regime was merciless when he fell out of favour. According to The Point newspaper, he was arrested on October 10, 2003, and charged with economic crimes, for which he received a nine-year jail term in 2004.
As if that was not bad enough, the government confiscated his house, leaving his family out in the cold. The house was converted into a torture chamber where many people were executed. During the TRRC hearings, a witness said some of the more than 50 West Africans who were massacred in The Gambia in 2005 were tortured and killed in Jobe’s house.
Her father’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment had serious ramifications for Tutty’s life as she had few friends due to the resulting stimatisation. “I had to put up with the taunting of other kids who never missed an opportunity to make fun of me, throwing my father’s imprisonment into my face each time we got into a fight. This caused me to distance myself from other children.”
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She also had to cope with missing her father because, despite everything, she always believed that he was innocent. It made her proud that the people who knew him well always spoke highly of him.
Tutty was permitted to see her father in prison once or twice a year. Every visit brought her both happiness and heartbreak. “I felt joy every time I saw him because even though he was in prison, at least he was still alive and I could spend some time with him. But it was also heartbreaking to see him in prison clothes because it reminded me that he had no freedom and I was only permitted to see him for a very short time,” she said.
Misfortune was not through with her yet as she lost her father when she was 16. It took her months to accept that he was truly gone. With his death, the hope of being reunited with him was lost forever.
“I always held out hope that I would see my father leave prison one day, but everything changed when I learned of his death. We always suspected it was foul play because he was recovering from his illness and was eager to join us once he was discharged from the hospital,” she added.
The family’s suspicions were confirmed during the TRRC hearings when witnesses said Baba Jobe was strangled in his sickbed by the Junglers, a hit squad that answered only to Jammeh and some of his closest associates, according to the report.
“Baba Jobe was asleep in his hospital bed at the RVTH in Banjul on October 28, 2011. He was scheduled to be freed after completing his sentence of imprisonment,” said the report, adding that President Jammeh issued the kill order because he did not want him to be released from jail. The murder was made to look as though he had died of his ailment.
Baba Jobe’s family is still suffering, struggling to make ends meet. Tutty, unable to continue her education after completing Grade 12 due to lack of funds, is currently jobless and depends on her mother and the father of her children to meet her needs. Her hopes to enrol at the Gambia Technical Training Institute to study business management fell through when her would-be sponsor failed to keep their promise. For now she has to be content with taking care of her children and doing household chores. She cannot help but imagine that her life would likely have been quite different if her father was alive and able to look after her when she needed him most during her formative years.
The family wants the government to return Jobe’s seized properties. The reparation money they received did not make much difference in their lives as it was not sufficient.
“The TRRC gave GMD24,000 to each of my father’s four wives. We are grateful for that, but honestly, the money didn’t make any difference because it was not much,” Tutty said.
The innocent children of victims endured the effects of their parents’ victimisation, especially when the former regime accused them of being traitors to the nation. The dependants were denied their fundamental rights, including education, as was the case with Fanta Barrow. The daughter of Lieutenant Basiru Barrow was on multiple occasions denied scholarships to further her education because of her father’s perceived crimes despite the fact that she was just a baby when he was killed.
Lieutenant Barrow was one of the 11 soldiers of the Gambia National Army who were tortured and murdered in their barracks in November 1994 for allegedly plotting a counter-coup against Jammeh’s junta, which had seized control of the nation a few months earlier, on July 22, 1994.
Fanta remembers the struggles of growing up without a father and the rejection she faced from Jammeh’s government, being denied a scholarship she merited just because of her last name.
“I watched my mother take on the roles of both parents. I would stay up until midnight every day, waiting for her to return from work. It was tough to watch her say goodbye in the morning as she prepared to work long shifts of 14–16 hours to support me and my sister and make sure our needs were met and that we received a good education. She would save every penny to buy us books and pay our school fees,” the 29-year-old told this reporter.
She and her sister were constantly reminded of the void left by their father’s absence as they did not get any support from the extended family.
It appears the government never forgot Lieutenant Barrow’s family, denying his daughter any assistance to further her studies. Her applications were often queried and even her good performance could not land her a government scholarship.
“When I was picked during the Miss July 22, 2008 pageant tryouts, which provided scholarships to the winners, I was specifically asked about my father. This question turned out to be the deciding factor in my disqualification.”
She added: “After the release of the 2009 grade nine WAEC results, we were informed that scholarships were granted to students with outstanding performance. Despite submitting my stellar results, I was never selected. Furthermore, after graduating from the 12th grade, I attempted to apply for various government scholarships, including the Air Force Academy one through the Gambia Armed Forces. Once again, I was turned away after being questioned about my last name and my father’s identity.”
However, she was determined not to allow the challenges to stand in the way of her dreams. And her tenacity has paid off. “My life is better now. I am soon completing my PhD in Integrative Biology and Physiology at the University of Minnesota, where I study liver disease,” she said.
According to a report by Fantaka, an organisation that specialises in sexuality education, gender training and advocacy, and the provision of mental health and psychosocial support, the children of victims are likely to have their lives shattered by their parents’ victimisation and also face additional mental health repercussions. The majority of them are left without the time or space to adequately process the devastating changes brought on by the violations against their parents.
“Most of these children had their childhood snatched away from them and in some instances their education suffered robbing them of their future aspirations,” said the Shadow Youth Report on Human Rights Violation during the Jammeh Regime: Experiences of Gambian Youth, which dwells on the psychological concept of “intergenerational or transgenerational trauma”, which describes the pain inflicted on parents and passed down to the next generation from actual victims of catastrophic events.
The study describes an interview with the child of a victim of illegal imprisonment and the impact it had on her and her family. Their daily routines were upended as their family house was seized by the government. The second-year university student lost interest in her studies and distanced herself from her friends.
The children of victims, who are now adults, suffer because they are denied their fundamental rights, which include access to education, the freedom to speak up and express themselves, as well as the right to equality, health, a clean environment, a safe place to live, and protection from all harm.
Victimised families in The Gambia were hesitant to speak out against the illegal arrest or execution of their family members during the dictatorship of the old regime for fear of suffering the same fate.
Article by Fatou O. Barrow