For Isatou Ceesay and Tombong Njie, the term “witch hunt” is not metaphorical. Under the regime of former dictator Yahya Jame, both were literally condemned as witches.
“He was holding people in custody, torturing them, and that was the end of them,” she said. Ceesay. “We were so uncomfortable going out. We are not witches, “she added. Njie.
During his 22-year rule, former President Jame severely weakened the country’s institutions and security apparatus. The regime was characterized by harassment; torture; the killing of political figures, journalists, activists and students; and significant sexual and gender-based violence against women and children.
Miss. Ceesay, Ms. Njie and many other Gambians still bear the scars of the abuses of the witch-hunt campaign, which began in 2009 and lasted several years. The victims struggled to escape the stigma associated with witches.
Support for difficult transition
In 2016, the Gambians voted for President Jame, and new President Adam Barrow was sworn in in February 2017. However, the nation of two million faced a severe political and social crisis with a lack of independent or effective judicial institutions and mass violations of Human rights.
The political transition requires urgent reforms to review the country’s institutions, promote democratic governance, tackle past human rights violations and establish respect for the rule of law.
One of the ways the UN has helped support this transition is through UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fundwhich provides funding for critical areas such as the security sector and justice reform.
The close cooperation of the UN with the authorities, under the leadership of President Barrow, laid the foundations of two major institutions in December 2017: the National Commission on Human Rights and the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which consists of eleven people and is designed to reflect the country’s diverse ethnic, religious and gender backgrounds.
Return of hope to the Gambia
Public hearings on truth and reconciliation began in January 2019, with victims and perpetrators testifying. The hearings and field activities aroused great public interest and wide public participation, including youth and civil society.
“TRRC is very important. I have seen how it has helped people to empathize with us, knowing that we have been deliberately and wrongly accused,” said Pa Demba Bojang, a victim of the witch hunt.
“People are now striving to live in peace in this country. The lives of the victims have been made better by the help they have received from the project. The project has restored hope to the Gambia,” said another victim.
The hearings were broadcast live on television, radio and online platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. They would not easily review cases of human rights violations, including torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, illegal detention / murder, and sexual and gender-based violence.
The UN Peacebuilding Fund has played a key role in facilitating the hearings. This enabled the Commission’s office to open, provide key equipment, technical support to commissioners and staff, and helped provide victims with access to TRRC procedures, which included reaching those in the outermost regions of the country.
About 2,000 people benefited from the Victim Participation Support Fund, which provided psychosocial support and basic medical interventions. In addition, 30 persons were provided with full witness protection.
In addition to the hearings, more than 34,000 Gambians have participated in field missions on the transitional justice process and participated in seminars held in close partnership with civil society organizations, religious and traditional leaders.
“Since the hearings began, the Commission’s participatory and accessible process has helped to promote national reconciliation. “We were wrongfully accused. Some people pointed fingers at us, but the TRRC helped us overcome that shame,” said another victim of the witch-hunt campaign.