For Isatou Ceesay and Tombong Njie, the term “witch hunt” is not metaphorical. Under the regime of former dictator Yahya Jammeh, they were both literally condemned as witches.
“He held people, tortured them, and that was the end of them,” Ms Ceesay said. “We were so embarrassed to go out. We’re not witches,” adds Mrs. Njie.
During his 22 years in power, former President Jammeh severely weakened the country’s institutions and security apparatus. The regime was characterized by intimidation; torture; the murder of political figures, journalists, activists and students; and significant sexual and gender-based violence against women and children.
Ms. Ceesay, Ms. Njie and many other Gambians still bear the scars of the abuse of the witch hunt campaign, which began in 2009 and lasted for several years. Victims struggled to escape the stigma associated with witches.
Supporting a difficult transition
In 2016, Gambians voted down President Jammeh, and the new president, Adama Barrow, was sworn in in February 2017. However, the country of two million people faced a serious political and social crisis due to the lack of independent or effective judicial institutions. and rampant human rights violations.
The political transition required urgent reforms to overhaul the country’s institutions, promote democratic governance, address past human rights violations and respect the rule of law.
One of the ways the UN has helped support this transition is through the UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund, which provided funds for critical areas such as the security sector and judicial reform.
The UN’s close cooperation with the authorities, led by President Barrow, laid the foundations for two major institutions in December 2017: the National Human Rights Commission and the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which consists of 11 individuals. and is designed to reflect the country’s diverse ethnic, religious and gender makeup.
Bringing hope back to The Gambia
Public truth and reconciliation hearings began in January 2019, with victims and perpetrators giving their personal testimonies. The hearings and outreach activities generated strong public interest and broad participation from the population, including young people and civil society.
“The TRRC is very important. I’ve seen people sympathize with us, knowing that we were accused intentionally and unjustly,” said Pa Demba Bojang, a victim of the witch hunt campaign.
“People are now striving to live in peace in this country. The lives of victims have improved thanks to the help they have received from the project. The project has brought hope back 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 have been easy to watch, regarding incidents of human rights violations, including torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention/murder, and sexual and gender-based violence.
Support for the victims
The UN Peacebuilding Fund played a key role in making the hearings possible. It enabled the Commission’s office to open up, provided key equipment and technical support to Commissioners and staff, and helped victims access TRRC procedures, which involved contacting people in the most remote areas of the country.
Some 2,000 people benefited from the Victim Participation Fund, which provided psychosocial support and essential medical interventions. In addition, 30 people received extensive witness protection.
In addition to the hearings, more than 34,000 Gambians participated in outreach missions on the transitional justice process and participated in workshops held in close collaboration with civil society, religious and traditional leaders.
Since the Commission started holding hearings, the Commission’s participatory and accessible process has helped to promote national reconciliation. “We were wrongly accused. Some pointed fingers at us, but TRRC helped us overcome this shame,” said another victim of the witch hunt campaign.