Many families of the victims of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances of the Yahya Jammeh era are still grappling with the tragedy of what happened to their loved ones as they wait for justice.
To many who for years did not know whether their kin was dead or alive, and even after it was confirmed they had been killed, are still waiting to be told where they were buried, Solo Sandeng’s family must have appeared to be one of the lucky ones to receive some form of closure for the pain it has suffered since the opposition leader was killed in 2016.
First, his body was exhumed just a year after he was tortured and murdered by Jammeh’s security forces. His murderers have been tried and jailed, and now his wife and nine children got a chance to lay his remains to rest on January 9, 2023. This has given hope to the Gambians anxious to know the fate of their loved ones.
His daughter, Fatoumatta Sandeng, founder and president of the Solo Sandeng Foundation, expressed relief that the family had finally laid him to rest.
She spoke of the pain of knowing that their loved one had been tortured and struggling to get justice for him. She described the state funeral as befitting and a form of closure.
“He was killed and we knew he was not buried yet. So, this gives us some closure. Not complete closure because it will never be, but at least now we have the feeling that we have accompanied him, buried him, and performed the rites. To some point, it fills the emotional emptiness. The loss of a father can never be substituted, but it’s relieving,” she said.
She spoke of relief for her mother, whom she said had suffered knowing how he had died.
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“We, the children, feel the pain, but I cannot imagine what she went through. It was a bad time for all of us, but especially difficult for her. Everyone could see how she was struggling. With the funeral, she’s now coping better. We have found some solace that Solo has been buried and that we were there to give him that.”
His son, Muhammed, spoke of his father’s legacy. “We all have a stake in carrying forward the legacy of Solo Sandeng as Gambians,” he said during the funeral conducted at the #NeverAgain Arch.
He also spoke of the price his father paid because of his beliefs.
“Yet the people who are better situated to continue his legacy have the greater task at which they constantly falter. I ask the question: Why is it important that you go and vote? Why is it important that freedom of speech, of assembly, and of association are respected and ensured? Where are the electoral reforms Solo died for? Why do human rights continue to be at risk in this country?” he asked.
During the funeral, tributes to the fallen hero of the struggle for democracy and freedom flowed freely.
“Solo was an ordinary citizen who achieved an extraordinary outcome for our nation through selfless devotion to the principles he believed in,” United Democratic Party (UDP) leader and former vice-president Ousainou Darboe said.
Describing him as a special son of the country who stood up against dictatorship, Justice Minister Dawda A. Jallow said: “He demonstrated his love for his country as a patriotic citizen who willingly volunteered his services for the development of his community and the nation at large.”
Sandeng led demonstrations to demand electoral reforms and was arrested on April 14, 2016. He died in custody, allegedly after being tortured.
In 2017, the new government exhumed the body of the activist. It remained in the custody of the state until the official funeral and tribute service at the Never Again Memorial Arch and was later buried at the family home in Serekunda. It seemed fittingly symbolic that the arch, constructed by the former dictator at the entrance to Banjul as a monument to his brutal rule, should be the place to honour one of his many victims.
Nine members of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), were prosecuted for Sandeng’s murder, a trial that lasted five years and ended in the conviction of former NIA Director General Yankuba Badjie, Sheikh Omar Jeng, Baboucarr Sallah, Masireh Tamba, and Lamin Darboe. They were all sentenced to death. Haruna Susso was acquitted while former NIA Deputy Director-General Louis Gomez died while in remand.
Many top dignitaries in the Gambian government, including President Adama Barrow, Vice-President Badara Joof, Speaker of the National Assembly Fabakary Tombong Jatta, and Deputy Speaker Seedy Njie, were missing from the well-attend function. This was unlike the funeral accorded to national soccer icon Alagie Momodou Njai, commonly known as Biri Biri, in July 2020, which was graced by the top government leadership.
Nonetheless, other representatives from the public service and civilians, as well as officials from the opposition party, UDP, attended the function to honour the freedom hero.
The state recognised Sandeng as a catalyst to the newfound democracy the nation was enjoying, saying he inspired the masses to expressly desire and vote for change and freedom, inspiring the nation’s current security sector reforms and the transitional justice process.