By Dr Baba Galleh Jallow
The TRRC concluded its second three-week session on February 28, 2019 with a hearing on circumstances surrounding the November 11, 1994 incident and the death of former AFPRC Finance minister Ousman Koro Ceesay in June 1995. During this session, the Commission heard testimonies from 12 witnesses, bringing to 25 the total number of witnesses heard since the beginning of our hearings on January 7, 2019. Six of these witnesses are resident in Europe and North America, three of whom testified via video conferencing while the other three were flown in by the TRRC to testify. Twenty of these witnesses are current or former officers of the Gambian security forces. The remaining five are civilians, including civil servants, former government ministers and one business man. All 25 witnesses were either invited or voluntarily offered to testify. And all 25 witnesses are male. We have had statements from female victims, but it has been tricky convincing some of them to testify. We hope to have our first female witness in the near future.
We are pleased to note that the revelations at the Commission’s hearings so far have generated serious public interest in our work and inspired in many Gambians a growing determination to ensure that never again shall we tolerate gross violations of our human rights or the emergence of a dictatorship in this country. The hearings have also inspired a robust conversation on what to do with persons adversely mentioned in witness testimonies. We wish to inform the general public that in line with the provisions of the TRRC Act, all persons adversely mentioned so far have been or will be served with notices of adverse mention. Persons who receive these notices may choose to voluntarily come forward and give their statements. They may also at some point either be invited, summoned or subpoenaed to appear if the Commission so decides.
During our third session, which will run from March 11 to 28, the Commission will continue hearing testimonies related to the November 11 incident and the death of Ousman Koro Ceesay. The Commission is interested in hearing more testimonies on how and why November 11 happened, who the main actors were, and ultimately, the whereabouts of those who disappeared during that incident. The Commission is also interested in hearing more testimonies about circumstances surrounding Koro Ceesay’s death. It is anticipated that at least one institutional hearing may happen during the third session.
We are happy to report that the TRRC now has two psychosocial support workers in our Victim Support Unit which, in collaboration with the Women’s Affairs Unit, the Research and Investigations Unit, and the Legal Team provide counselling to all witnesses before, during and after every hearing. Every witness meets several times with staff of each of these units in preparation for appearance before the Commission. Post-hearing sessions are also held with each witness and follow-up assessments conducted. At least one of our psychosocial support workers is always present during the hearings to offer whatever support a witness might need as they give their testimonies. Following a request to the Chief Fire and Rescue Officer, an ambulance and four paramedics have been assigned to the TRRC and are present in the hall during all hearings. The Victim Support Unit is also continuing to work closely with the Medical Board set up by the Ministry of Health at the request of the TRRC to review the cases of victims who need urgent medical attention. The Board continues to see victims even as they work on finalizing their reports for submission to the TRRC. Once we receive the reports, we will proceed to the next step of seeing how best the Commission can facilitate treatment for these victims either within or outside The Gambia. We are also compiling a list of other victims needing urgent medical attention who will be referred to the Board and hopefully other medical facilities for assistance. This victim support work is part of our ongoing interim reparations program. At this point, a comprehensive reparations policy for the TRRC has been drafted and is under review for final adoption by the Commission.
Meanwhile, we are happy to report that during January and February, 2019 as the hearings were happening at Dunes Resort, TRRC units were conducting several community outreach activities across the country with a view to continuing the national conversation on the mandate and work of the Commission, the causes and consequences of dictatorship, how best Gambians can make sure that it never happens in this country again, and how best to promote justice, healing, peace and reconciliation as key defining characteristics of our national character. In addition to seeking to empower Gambian communities, these outreach activities demonstrate the TRRC’s policy of inclusiveness. We believe that no Gambian voice should be left out of this national conversation, that each Gambian voice should be capable of expressing an informed opinion on issues of national interest, and that each Gambian voice should in fact express an informed opinion on issues of national interest. This concept was clearly articulated in our recently concluded National Youth Caravan funded by the British Embassy in Banjul and coordinated in association with the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).
Having as its theme “Our Nation, Our Voice”, the National Youth Caravan ran from February 4 – 13, and used music, art, poetry and sports to engage communities in the national conversation on how best citizens may be empowered to prevent a recurrence of dictatorship and gross human rights violations in this country. Among the young artists who participated in the caravan were two of our own Youth Empowerment Officers – the poets Lala Touray and Cherno Gaye – as well as musicians Awa Bling, Boobo Dimo and Yabse. Joanna Rice of the ICTJ and Imran Darboe of the TRRC jointly facilitated and coordinated the event. The TRRC will continue to engage these young artists to promote the “Our Nation, Our Voice” message as part of our #NeverAgain campaign.
The TRRC’s Youth and Children’s Network Unit (YCNU) continues to ensure that young people are included and actively participate in this national conversation. Since we launched our school outreach program in November 2019, the unit has visited 32 senior secondary schools across the country and had conversations with at least 15, 000 school children on the #NeverAgain campaign. During its last school outreach in the North Bank, Central River and Upper River Regions which ran from February 14 to 18, the YCNU with support from the African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies had three community radio programs at Kerewan, Brikamaba and Basse in which they engaged local communities in dialogue on the work and mandate of the TRRC and the #NeverAgain campaign.
On Wednesday January 16, the YCNU conducted an intergenerational town hall meeting with young people and community elders in Bansang. Participants in that townhall included two village alkalos, one ward councilor and one Village Development Committee chairman. The Bansang townhall enabled a fruitful conversation between and among young people and their community elders on the work of the TRRC and how best Gambians can prevent a recurrence of dictatorship and human rights violations in this country. On Wednesday, January 23, the unit in collaboration with the UNDP Transitional Justice team conducted a one-day consultative meeting with young artists and poets at the TRRC conference room to explore how best to involve them in our popular empowerment process. And on Tuesday 29 and Wednesday 30 January, the YCNU convened the first ever Gambian National Children’s Summit at the Rural Development Institute in Mansakonko. The summit attracted 70 participants from across the country, mostly children.
Our Reconciliation Unit has also been actively participating in and conducting outreach activities. These included a Focus Group Discussion at the Victims Centre on December 17, 2018; participation in the UTG Student Week activity on reconciliation, peacebuilding and social cohesion on January 5, 2019; a QTV program on reconciliation and peace on January 7; a social cohesion workshop organized by the Catholic Relief Services Gambia office from January 10 – 12; and a trauma resilience workshop from January 13 – 16. From January 23 to 25, the Reconciliation Unit in collaboration with the Women’s Affairs, Communications and Research and Investigations units conducted a series of village dialogues and community radio engagements in Farafenni, Soma, Kwinella, and Bwiam. This March the Reconciliation Unit plans to hold community dialogues in the Kanifing Municipal area as well as conduct baseline surveys on conflict analysis and peacebuilding dynamics in Gambian communities, among other activities.
Finally, we wish to take this opportunity to acknowledge the very kind support of Pastor Forbes of Abiding Word Ministries “for God and for country!” In addition to his church’s monthly donation of 50 cartons of bottled water to the TRRC, Pastor Forbes is publicly and actively engaged in praying for and preaching peace, love, reconciliation, healing, confidence and #NeverAgain for The Gambia. Thank you Pastor, and Amen. Your optimism is uplifting. As we prepare for our third session of hearings, we continue to crave your kind support and prayers and the kind support and prayers of all members of the general public. God bless The Gambia.