By Kebba Jeffang
A fifty-six-year-old mother, Kumba Kora, has withdrawn all her three school-going children because she couldn’t afford their education.
Hailing from Tambasangsang in the Upper River Region, Kumba was only relying on gardening to sponsor her children in school.
But the garden was allegedly forcefully taken from her because she was opposition and handed to her rival women supporters of the ruling party.
Out of her six children, three were enrolled, who attained grades 3, 4, and 5 respectively at the time of their withdrawal.
“I am the sole food provider for the family because my aging husband is unwell. Losing the garden means I had to prioritize between feeding my children and their education,” Kumba said.
Tambasansang, a rural village is 12 km from the metropolitan town, Basse. It used to be the chieftaincy for the Tumana district.
Both the village head [Alkalo] and the Chief [Seyfo] were strong representatives of Yahya Jammeh and his party during his reign. Like the same way many other victims of political intolerance under dictatorship had suffered, Kumba faced extreme hardship together with her fellow oppositions in the community.
Being a renowned opposition, she paid the price and the consequences are still lingering.
A year she couldn’t exactly recall, she remembered a major incident that broke out between the ruling party women supporters and the opposition women which led to the separation of the community garden. Each party’s supporters were allocated certain measurements of land for gardening purposes.
But later on, according to her, conflict ensued as Jammeh’s supporters left their garden, claiming the land allocated to them was not fertile.
“We were powerless. We were intimidated and continually insulted. Their supporters came to our garden and set everything on fire. It was at a time when our vegetables were very green and bearing.
“The mangoes we planted had started bearing fruits as well. Everything was burnt and they took over our lands with the support of our former chief and Alkalo. We, therefore, succumbed to their fight and vacated,” she said.
Initially, the police had detained the arsonists, according to her, but such detention “very brief and they were released unconditionally.”
After the 2016 election which led to the downfall of Yahya Jammeh, Kumba’s hope rose high expecting to recover their garden. She hoped that the current administration will carry out investigations to arrive at the truth of the matter and enforces justice regarding their garden. However, no real change occurred as she accused the government of relying on the same people as supporters.
“We made efforts after the change but nothing is resolved because the new leadership maintains the same people as their supporters. The women who supported ex-president Jammeh are the same people rooting for Barrow’s government,” she disgruntledly stated.
“We remain powerless to this day and continue to suffer because we still have not gotten back our land.
Like her husband, Kumba is aging. She says the frustration, regret, and pains of unjustly losing a deserved livelihood to her political opponents are causing her serious health issues, making her scared about the future of her children, especially with none of them currently being enrolled in school.
“I am not healthy anymore and I believe it is as a result of pains and regrets I am harbouring in myself. It is not only me. Many others here have discontinued the education of their children because we can’t afford their education,” she said.
The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has published a report in 2019 which encapsulates the hardships women had encountered during the dictatorship, stating that the women victims had to go to great lengths to put food on the table for their families.
The report reveals that the struggle for the basics left little or no money for their children’s school fees, and some mothers could not afford to enrol their children in school. It is worth to say that the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened their situation.
Torture against a woman
Political intolerance was so deep during the dictatorship. A Wuli Sutukoba resident, Jahanka Sillah was arrested and maltreated by an operative of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).
She recalled being reported to the state’s security by a late friend from the same compound for refusing to join the then ruling party.
“She was my friend. She reported me because I am supporting an opposition. We always had arguments but I had never thought she would take it that far. She went to report me to the NIA officer,” Jahanka said.
Jahanka recalled that the NIA operative had arrived when she was still on her praying mat making supplications after 5 pm prayers. She was asked to get up but insisted that she must complete her supplications before she can follow the NIA operative.
“I remember asking him the reason for my arrest and he responded sarcastically that I can only know when I reach Basse [police station]. He told me I must get up because he did not have time to wait for the completion of my prayers.
“He came and tightly scolded me by strapping my neck with my garment. He hit my head against the wall and this continues to affect my sight up to today. He also cut all my necklaces and other pieces of jewellery. I sustained physical pains which still pains me,” she said.
Jahanka was forced out of her home leaving her children and neighbours wailing. She recalled her shoes were cut off as she was pulled out and struggled for her life before been taken to Basse police station.
While she was released the very night, she suffered injuries and internal pains in the hands of the officer. According to her, those pains still linger while her sight is permanently affected.
“I have forgiven both the person who reported me and the NIA operative who arrested me. I have nothing to hold against them,” she expressed, as she prayed for her perpetrators who both have died since.
The past mistakes must be avoided
A human rights NGO, Beakanyang is currently rolling a reconciliatory effort amongst victims and perpetrators in the URR called ‘Baading Bung.’ The project encourages political tolerance.
“We know we are in an election year and we believe running a reconciliatory project like this will help to avoid similar mistakes as it happened during the dictatorship,” the executive director Nfamara Jawneh said.
He said a good number of rural women suffered a lot during the dictatorship because of political intolerance.
“And due to socio-cultural barriers, we have a lot of them who were suffering in silence. Some of these women had no one to lean onto.”
Jawneh said rural women “had their fair share of dictatorship” as some lost their main sources of livelihoods for being opposition to Jammeh’s ruling party.
The International Center for Transitional Justice’s report concluded that the former regime’s repression of the opposition had led to some women’s frequent arbitrary arrest and unlawful detentions at secret locations.
“Women across the Gambia experienced gross human rights violations during the previous regime. They lived in fear of being tortured, arrested, or detained for either going against the directives of former president Yahya Jammeh or for not supporting him.
“The main violations that came up in the consultations were sexual violence, arbitrary arrest, torture, ill-treatment, forced labour, and land confiscation,” the statement stated.
The impact of dictatorship on rural women, in particular, was huge that they continue to live with it as painful as they are, psychologically and economically.
The ICTJ calls on the government to enforce laws that protect the rights of women, including the 2010 Women’s Act to prevent a recurrence.
It also tasks both the central and local government authorities to ensure that women farmers own land or have access to land by revising the land distribution process and regulations.
The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) was set up purposely to address past human rights violations under dictatorship.
The ICTJ recommends that the TRRC conducts consultations with women victims on the long-term impacts of the violations they suffered to determine a reparations programme that would address their needs and ensure they receive fair and adapted reparations.