By Zainab Jobarteh
Kebba Tunkara does not like to talk about his time in detention. He does not want the terrible memories that come back to him of that period in his life. However, his amputated leg, poor hearing, and ill health cannot let him forget the 15 months he suffered at the mercy of Yahya Jammeh’s torturers.
The former businessman and employee of The Gambia Ports Authority was a victim of the arbitrary arrests, torture, and detentions that were so common during the many times Jammeh claimed that his government had foiled yet another attempted coup. Although in many cases there was no proof to support the claims, many people suffered and others even lost their lives as the dictator used the excuse to crack down on perceived threats to his hold on power.
After one such claim in October 1995, Kebba and 45 other people found themselves detained and tortured at the Fajara Barracks for one year and three months, accused of plotting a coup d’état.
According to Kebba, he knew nothing about the alleged putsch. He first heard about it when two men, Modou Pikka Jallow and Ousman Tamba, stopped him as he came from a naming ceremony and told him that he was under arrest. When he asked what his crime was, he was shoved into the boot of a car and driven to Kairaba police station. He found other men waiting all accused of trying to remove Jammeh from power. The group was later transferred to Fajara Barracks.
The group kept growing as a new batch was brought in every day until finally their shed housed 46. Each morning, Almamo Manneh, a state guard, would come in with several other officers and start beating the prisoners using water pipes. Kebba said the beatings were so bad that they left deep wounds on his backs.
“We were not given anything to eat for five days,” he said.
Witnesses at the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission have mentioned the name of Almamo Manneh several times in connection with extrajudicial killings and torture. He later suffered the same fate when he was killed at State House, accused of plotting a coup.
Kebba explained that during one of the torture sessions, he was hit in the face with a shoe, which broke a number of his teeth and left him partially deaf. He still struggles to hear. He said the prisoners were also subjected to electric shock.
He felt so much pain, for so long at the hands of people he did not know, but only remembers Almamo Manneh.
Kebba Tunkara described the camp as the worst place anyone could live. The prisoners slept on the bare floor and the room was infested with mosquitoes and other insects. They were not allowed to shower for more than 20 days, during which they were infrequently served meagre meals. He added that some prisoners fainted because of hunger. “We were not even allowed visitors,” he said.
Nobody cared about their welfare. He cited the example of the day it rained and their room was flooded. “The water was at knee level and no one did anything about it until the rain stopped. When finally, the water subsided, we spread our shirts on the floor and tried to sleep,” he said.
And then he started having trouble with his leg. The problem started when he got sick with malaria and sought treatment at the camp’s hospital. The site of an injection he received was painful, but he dared not complain. “I did not complain because I was afraid. I did not want to give them a reason to kill me.”
The pain persisted even after his release from detention. Kebba said the pain starts from the hip and radiates down the leg. “It feels as though a living thing is walking down my leg.” He was convinced that the injection he was given was tainted with some poison.
Fatouding Touray remembers her husband’s incarceration as a most traumatising time. She was pregnant with their 14th child and suddenly, the family’s breadwinner was gone. And she did not realise until three days later that he had been arrested.
Her husband did not come home that day, which was unusual. Then the third day she heard on the radio that several people involved in an attempted coup had been arrested. Her husband’s name was listed among the alleged coup plotters. And for the next three months the family did not know his whereabouts. “One day, his nephew came and told me that he had seen him in Fajara, at the camp, as they were queuing to bathe, but the soldiers did not allow him to get close to him,” Fatouding said.
They were released on bail after three months, but were later rearrested. Kebba spent three days with his family, then went away for one year.
Fatouding said the trial took a long time and the family did not understand the proceedings. She said men in police uniform would beat her husband and insult him in court, and no one would do anything about it. She noticed that Kebba was always in pain and had difficulty walking.
Release from custody did not bring much relief to Kebba and his family. Instead, the problems worsened because he was in poor health.
“There is no single hospital we did not visit in Kanifing Municipality, and I cannot even tell you how much money was spent trying to get his leg healed.” She explained that when Kebba first returned home, he could not move and they had to walk all over his body to get his limbs to function.
The couple said despite the illness, they had to go back to selling fabrics at the market in order to look after their family. Kebba once fainted at work and she had to rush him to hospital, where tests for diabetes and high blood sugar turned out negative. Kebba could no longer work in the market stall.
Fatouding said doctors were puzzled by Kebba’s leg. However, he dared not explain that it was set off by an injection while he was in detention because he was scared that Yahya Jammeh’s men would kill him. No treatment could work and after 24 years of suffering, his leg was finally amputated in May 2020.
Kebba did not testify at the TRRC, but a fellow former detainee, Sainey Faye, represented his group before the commission in February 2019.
Sainey gave a graphic description of the torture the detainees suffered and the inhumane conditions in which they were forced to live for 14 months at Fajara Barracks – in a dirty garage without ventilation.
Unlike Kebba, he remembered the names of some of his tormentors. He said Daba Marenah, the head of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), supervised the interrogation and torture of the detainees, and that Almamo Manneh and another soldier referred to as “Bombardier” were particularly vicious in meting out punishment. He said lawyer Ousainou Darboe, the country’s vice president at the time of his testimony and leader of the opposition United Democratic Party, was among the detainees and suffered the torture.
About their case, Sainey said they were charged with five counts of criminal sedition and conspiracy to commit an act with seditious intent. The prosecutor kept applying for an extension of their detention, so they ended up spending more than a year in jail as the case stagnated. In the end, the charges were dropped and they were released. But Interior Minister Lamin Kaba Bajo had them rearrest and charged with treason, but they were never arraigned before a court of law for this offence.
Sainey’s story reflected that one of Kebba. He still walks with a limp because of the torture he suffered. He said his family suffered because he was the sole breadwinner and his business of importing goods collapsed while he was in detention. He cannot revive it because of his poor health. His children dropped out of school for lack of fees.
However, Fatouding said that despite the suffering Kebba and their family have endured, they were grateful that he was still alive.
These sentiments are echoed in Sainey’s testimony that many of the people who were detained with him and Kebba have died because of the torture they suffered.