Gunshots rang out at Hamza Barracks, Banjul, on the night of August 26-27, 2011. After the ensuing confusion had cleared, Corporal Mariama Camara lay dead and her husband, Alpha Jallow, was hovering on the brink of death. Mariama had been shot twice in the head and Alpha had been shot and strangled.
The couple’s grief-stricken families started getting suspicious about the cause of the death of their loved ones when they were denied access to their bodies until shortly before their burials. Mariama’s employer, the Gambia Armed Forces, kept telling the families that investigations were going on.
Then the rumours started. It was alleged that the couple was murdered because of Mariama’s close relationship with President Yahya Jammeh.
The murder of Mariama and her husband seem destined to remain partially unexplained, even during the truth-telling period that followed the exit of Jammeh. The case was still one of the pending issues before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) as it neared the end of its public hearings in May 2021, according to Lead Counsel Essa Faal. Explaining why the TRRC had extended its public hearings to the end of that month, the lawyer was quoted as acknowledging that although the commission had established the facts about the murders of Mariama and Alpha, it had yet to confirm who actually carried out the killings.
Haruna Camara, Mariama’s brother, was one of the first family members at the scene after hearing about his sister’s killing. He was puzzled about the circumstances of her death and noticed inconsistencies in the explanations the authorities offered. He and his family have never got over Mariama’s death and are still seeking answers to the mystery of her murder.
Haruna narrated his story to Neneh Sainey Secka.
My name is Haruna Camara. I was born in Essau in 1977, my parents’ oldest child. Currently I live in Kotu. Mariama was my younger sister.
Mariama joined the army in 2001, and died a soldier in August 2011. Before that she had worked with Uncle Sam Security Services. I personally helped her to prepare for the military basic training. She emerged top in her class and was nicknamed First Lady. I cannot say what her rank was in the army; I just know that she was a plainclothes soldier attached to the State Guard unit, which falls under the National Republican Guard, one of the branches of the Gambia Armed Forces. The only time I saw her in uniform was during a festival in Kanilai. Mariama’s duties included guarding the president’s visitors.
Mariama was very close to former President Yahya Jammeh, and even his children. I often wondered about her relationship with the president. I suspect that something was going on between them. Mariama was also an athlete and liked participating in inter-forces sporting events. I once attended the games to watch Mariama run. I was with her when her phone rang and heard her say in Mandinka, “I took first position.” When she hang up and I asked her who she was talking to, she said “UGA”. I pressed her to specify the person and she told me it was the president, that he had called to ask about the race.
On another occasion when I had gone to visit her at the barracks, she received a call. I heard her tell the caller, “Sir I cannot make it today because I am tired.” When I remarked that she seemed to be enjoying the conversation she just smiled. She later told me that she had been talking to Jammeh. She was not married then. I wondered aloud why the president kept calling her, just a junior officer, but she changed the subject.
The third time I heard her speak to the president, I had gone to visit her at Hamza Barracks in Banjul. We had stayed up late, talking and the president called at around 2am. I insisted that she tell me what was going on.
Mariama said Jammeh had asked her to marry him and that she had informed our father. According to her, our father was agreeable, although she had turned the president down as she knew the union would not work. She confided in me that she had married Alpha to try to stop Jammeh from calling her.
In August 2011, I called Mariama and told her I would celebrate that year’s Islamic feast of Laylatul Qadr, the Night of Power, with her family since they could not visit me. On that Friday, after I had completed my prayers, Mariama’s husband called me.
“I have issues with Mariama and I wanted to register my complaint with you,” he said, and went ahead to explain that there had been tension between him and Mariama lately because she did not respect him. He admitted that they had been having problems for some time.
I asked him to hand the phone to Mariama, but he claimed that she was sleeping. I found that puzzling because I often spoke to my sister late, even after 2am, as she did not go to bed early. He told me Mariama had switched off her phone. I later learned that he had lodged the same complaint with Sohna Touray, Mariama’s colleague.
The next day, a Saturday, I woke up early because I had several errands to run before going to visit Mariama. As I stepped out of my house, my phone rang. It was my cousin Alpha Sowe. After greetings and small talk, he said he had heard that my sister had died. I told him that was not possible because I had spoken to her husband the night before.
He said his brother Sainey Sowe’s message said Mariama had been shot. Sainey was also a State Guard working at the State House. I hired a taxi to rush me to Banjul. When I got to Hamza Barracks and asked the whereabouts of my sister, I was told to follow a vehicle I had just seen exiting the gate. The vehicle ended up at the mortuary of Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital. There was a big crowd at the mortuary gate and I saw several people that I knew and plainclothes officers. Wandifa Barrow, an orderly of President Jammeh, was the only one I saw in uniform.
I was stopped at the gate and when I introduced myself as Mariama Camara’s brother and told to go to the police headquarters. At the hospital’s front gate, I met a man who recognised me. He told me he wanted to show me something and sneaked me into the accident and emergency unit. I found my sister’s husband lying on a stretcher. He appeared to be seriously injured on the neck and I could see a bone sticking out. “Alpha, where is Mariama?” I asked him but although he looked at me, he was unable to speak. He was wearing a white sleeveless shirt that was covered in blood. I could see blood oozing from the wound in his neck.
When I arrived at the police station at around noon, I heard several military officers talking about the incident. One officer said he had rushed out of his house at Hamza Barracks when he heard a gunshot. According to him, he saw Alpha stagger out of the house holding a small bag. He fell down and asked the officer to take him to hospital. The officer said he found Mariama lying dead on the floor. He claimed that he took Alpha back into the house and locked him in after carrying Mariama’s body out. He reported the incident and shortly afterwards, soldiers from State House arrived and took Mariama’s body and Alpha to the hospital.
I heard Wandifa Barrow, who was holding a file, tell the officer in charge that he was on duty at the time of the shooting.
The police said they had found a message on Alpha’s phone that he had sent to his friend Bonjang, which said: “Come and help us. We are dying.” Bonjang told the police that he had not seen the message because he was asleep.
They found another message to Ebrima, Alpha’s brother, that said: “My wife is dead.” Ebrima said he had tried to call back but no one had answered. Alpha’s last call was made at around 6am to my younger brother, Lamin, a nurse at Kudang village. Lamin said when he answered the phone, no one was speaking.
I was directed upstairs to the Major Crime Unit, where I explained my conversation with Alpha the day before and was asked questions.
I found my father and a few of his friends at the hospital when I went back at around 2pm to try to see Mariama’s body. However, we were turned away by the soldiers who were still guarding the gate. They told us that the case was a state matter and that we should go back home.
I had hoped to get Alpha to explain to me what had happened to Mariama, but I heard the officers say my brother-in-law had died.
The next morning, my brother Lamin asked me to meet him in Banjul. He said he could get into the mortuary because he was a nurse. I arrived first and waited for him at the door. Another nurse helped us to locate the drawers in which Mariama’s and Alpha’s bodies had been stored. We saw that Mariama had been shot in the head and Alpha in the neck.
When we went to collect the bodies on Monday morning, we found them already prepared for burial. No family member was allowed inside the mortuary for the preparations. “I cannot even perform the last rites for my child,” my father said as tears ran down his face. We had no choice in the Imam to conduct the funeral as the army had sent Imam Oustas Drammeh. Many soldiers came for the funeral. After the prayers, the soldiers escorted the bodies to our village.
We were not allowed to open the coffin. Mariama’s body was transferred straight from the coffin into the grave. We only got a glimpse of the white cloth it was wrapped in. Alpha was buried on Tuesday at Fajikunda.
My father was disappointed that neither President Jammeh nor anyone else from the government sent any message of condolence to our family. I was surprised at this because I knew that Mariama was close to Jammeh. Vice President Isatou Njie-Saidy later visited my mother and gave her some money. I told my mother that she should have declined the donation because I was angry that the government had ignored my sister’s burial.
We were not allowed access to Mariama’s house to get her belongings. Not even the police were allowed in. Forty days after her burial, I went to the barracks to ask for her things. This was necessary because Islamic rites demand that family share out a deceased person’s belongings 40 days after their burial. When I explained to Wandifa Barrow my mission, he asked me to wait at the gate. He came back with a Captain Jassey, who told me to come back the next day with someone to help me carry Mariama’s things. I called Lamin, my brother, and Alpha’s brother Ebrima. My father sent my mother to accompany us. Wandifa Barrow and another officer called Bojang took us to Mariama’s house.
I could see that someone had attempted to clean up the place. There were marks of a mop on the floor mixed with blood stains. The couch was lying upside down on the floor and there were more blood stains on the tiles in the bedroom. Most of the couple’s things were missing. We carried away some bowls and cooking utensils. We found a bag containing 30,000 dalasi that Mariama had hidden under the bed.
A month later my mother called me on the phone to tell me some people from Mariama’s workplace had come to question her. They were particularly interested in knowing whether Mariama was right- or left-handed. I asked to speak to them and the person in charge said they were investigating the deaths. They said they wanted to know the hand Mariama normally used because they were testing guns for fingerprints. I told them that Mariama was left-handed.
When we didn’t hear from the investigators, I called Wandifa Barrow after a few weeks to find out what was happening. He urged me to be patient as investigations were usually slow. Days later I was summoned to the State House. At the gate, I was told to wait, then I was told to go to the army headquarters in Banjul. I was taken to a small room with a chair and a table and kept waiting for almost 30 minutes before two soldiers walked in. Their name tags identified them as Bojang and Faye.
They took me to a bigger room that had a round table and several chairs. I sat down as other soldiers started filing in. Faye asked me what sort of person Mariama was and whether she was hot-tempered. I retorted that they should know Mariama better since she spent most her time at work with them. The man jumped up and hit the table with his hand. He accused me of being rude. Bojang told him to take it easy as they needed my help. The angry Faye stormed out. I was scared because I realised that anything could happen to me in that place.
A short while later, they sent me away, promising to call me back if they needed my help. Two or three days later, I got a call to go back to the army headquarters. I told the person calling me that I did not have money to pay the fare to Banjul. He told me to borrow some and that I would be reimbursed. I was told to be in the office by 8am the next day.
I was at the gate by 9am. I waited a long time. I spotted Wandifa Barrow leaving and called out to him. He asked for my phone number and left me sitting at the gate. At about 11am, a soldier told me to come back the following day because the person I was supposed to see was busy. One hour after I arrived back home, my phone rang.
The caller asked, “Are you Haruna?” When I answered in the affirmative, he told me, “If I were you, I would stay away from this case.” I asked him who he was, but he said that did not matter. He explained that he had written down my phone number when I was giving it to Wandifa Barrow at the army headquarters gate. “It is up to you to take my advice or not.” Then he ended the call.
When I narrated the encounter to a friend who is a retired soldier, he warned me to stay away from the case or risk being harmed. The next day I was summoned back to the army headquarters. Although I was at home, I lied that I was in Brikama. The caller wanted to know where exactly and I told him I would call him back.
I was scared. I switched off my phone and removed the SIM card. For more than one year, I did not go to Banjul. My father asked me why I did not visit him and my mother in the village and I kept saying I was busy. I could not because I had to pass through Banjul to get to my parents’ home.
Several months later the daughter of the president of Benin, who was Mariama’s close friend, came to The Gambia and insisted on visiting my mother to condole with our family. She got one of Mariama’s colleagues, Salifu Corr, to accompany her. She said she had wanted to visit us earlier but the president had not given his permission.
Mariama’s death hit the whole family hard, but my father was especially affected. Mariama was the one who took care of all our parents’ needs. My father developed hypertension. He became withdrawn, keeping to himself and sometimes talking to himself. He visited marabouts to find out how his daughter had died. He started going for prayers at the mosque at the State House in the hope of meeting President Jammeh to talk to him about Mariama. One Friday after prayers, he met one of Mariama’s former colleagues and introduced himself. The man, whose last name was also Camara, started yelling at the old man, telling him he never wanted to see him again. He ordered him not to come back to the mosque. My father was embarrassed and hurt, and he broke down. He never went back to the mosque.
Shortly afterwards, he collapsed in his toilet early one morning. He was rushed to hospital but he died. He could not come to terms with Mariama’s death. My mother is also having trouble accepting what happened to her daughter. The whole family is suffering. We want to know what happened to Mariama, who killed her, and why. There have been many rumours about her death, but we have yet to learn the truth. Perhaps then we can begin to heal.