Pa Ousman Njie always took a keen interest in the proceedings of The Gambia’s truth commission.
This in itself was not unusual because some of the testimonies and confessions the commission heard were so compelling that many Gambians were glued to their televisions and radios as the picture of Yahya Jammeh’s excesses unfolded.
What drew my attention to Pa Ousman was the interest he took in the office discussions that usually followed the sessions of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC). I later found out that the driver had special interest in the tales of human rights abuses witnesses were recounting because he, too, was a victim.
Pa Ousman, a driver at the Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations, got into trouble during the demonstrations of April 14, 2016 to call for electoral reforms, and two days later, on April 16, to demand the release of protesters and an investigation of the death in police custody of Solo Sandeng, a prominent opposition party leader.
He was a taxi driver at the time and was coming from dropping off a client. He came upon a group of protesters at Westfield. He could not overtake them because they were walking on the road. Therefore, he drove slowly behind them. At first he thought the group was seeking donations for a charitable cause. Then he saw a truck full of Police Intervention Unit (PIU) officers coming to meet the protesters. The officers jumped out and started chasing the peaceful protesters. There was chaos.
Pa Ousman was confused. He did not know what was really going on. Some of the protesters ran into a shop that belonged to his brother. The PIU officers followed them and arrested them. His brother’s son, who was working in the shop, was bundled together with the protesters. Pa Ousman said he could not just sit in his taxi and watch the policemen beat up his nephew, who had now started bleeding. He got out, with the intention of intervening.
“Excuse me, please,” was all that he managed to get out before a group of PIU officers coming from behind attacked him. He was beaten, kicked, and handcuffed.
He had left his taxi parked in the middle of the road. One of the officers asked for the owner of the vehicle. “I raised my hand and told them I was just a taxi driver and not part of the protest.” His pleas fell on deaf ears. The car keys were snatched from him and the group of detainees was taken to the PIU camp.
Pa Ousman recognised a few people at the camp. He saw Yankuba Sonko, the then Inspector General of Police; Yankuba Colley, the Kanifing Municipal Council mayor; and Ousman Sonko, the Interior minister. These were all Jammeh’s trusted men. Jammeh was known for his “hiring and firing” policy, which meant that not many people strayed in his administration long enough to be recognised by the public. One needed to be particularly interested in the country’s current affairs to know the people holding office in The Gambia. However, the men Pa Ousman saw had been in office so long that he knew their faces.
He saw the senior officials speaking with someone on the phone. A decision was made to take the 26 detainees to Mile 2 Prison. At the prison, they had their belongings taken away and they were herded into a cell. They were later taken to the National Intelligent Agency office for interrogation. After his statement was taken, Pa Ousman was escorted down the stairs. Soon, he was blindfolded. He felt a sharp pain “like a nail being driven into my body”. He later learned that he had been injected with an unidentified substance. His head was shoved into a barrel full of smelly water. He believes he would have died if he had not fought back. He pulled himself back and managed to fall on the ground, taking two of his tormentors with him. The now angry group set on him, beating him mercilessly.
At one time, the blindfold slipped down his face and he was able to see the faces of his assailants. He recognised two senior officials but did not know their names. He saw a man holding prayer beads as he kicked him. Pa Ousman came to a chilling conclusion: that these people were having fun, that this was something they enjoyed doing, like a hobby. He realised that they did not consider inflicting pain on innocent people, or even killing them, a crime. That is why they could pray as they tortured people, and even film their actions, probably to watch the “movie” later.
The prisoners were later taken back to Mile 2. Pa Ousman said he was feeling dizzy and almost fainted when he got back into the cell. He was ill for two weeks, but he was not offered any medical treatment. He said he could have died if he was not strong. A few days later, he was charged with treason and 40 other offences.
The 26 detainees shared a prison cell for a month. They were given buckets to use as toilets. There was no privacy. In total, Pa Ousman spent two months and two days in prison.
Upon his release, he went to the PIU camp to try to retrieve his taxi and found that it was not there. For three months, no one seemed to know where the vehicle was, even though he gave the name of the officer who had taken away his car keys. The officers made little effort to help him find his vehicle although it was last seen in their possession. When it was finally located it, Pa Ousman could see that it did not look like a car that had not been used for five months. He suspected that the PIU officers had been using it. He was annoyed and threatened to sue the department. However, the police boss advised him not to pursue the matter because “nobody can fight the government”.
Pa Ousman later found work, employed as a driver at the victims’ centre on December 2, 2019. He said he still had his taxi parked at his house because it meant a lot to him.