The Chronicle Gambia

1981: Locked in a Warehouse and Forgotten

It was the fourth day. Most of us were still alive. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough  that I could make out the dark forms with whom I shared my confinement. I saw the outlines of men and women, bodies entwined, limbs disappearing under backs, heads under arms… Some bodies crouching as if in an attempt to disappear into themselves, others frozen in position, still, so still.

My eyes lingered over one of these figures, a young woman. She had sat with her back to the wall and her head between her knees. She was one of those who could be heard saying aloud “They will come soon. They will open the door and we can all go home. Anytime now. Don’t panic. God will not let this happen. Yallah du deff lu nyaw. ” She repeated these words often, as if in prayer. As if these words were an incantation, a spell which, if said enough times will summon beings of miracle who would break us out of our confinement and save us from slow, torturous deaths. Now she lay on her side motionless, lifeless arms askew. Maybe she was breathing, maybe she wasn’t.

I had observed her voice getting weaker and weaker as she repeated herself. Everytime she spoke, my despair grew and my hopes sank lower. I couldn’t take it anymore. I screamed at her to stop, for her words, once a source of strength, now only accentuated the hopelessness of our situation. I screamed at her, she went on speaking as if I hadn’t screamed, as if I didn’t exist. For a few moments, I clutched unto the possibility that I didn’t exist, that this was merely a bad dream to be woken up from, to be left behind. I dared to hope. I merely had to wait, for this ghastly dream to reach its climax, so I may awaken drenched in sweat and clutching the sheets as I have done so many times before. Hope is a wonderful feeling, an affectionate companion, and hope sat by me in those short moments and held my hand. But a burst of sobs from somewhere in the dark wrenched it away from me. I clawed at the dark, trying to hold on… I clawed into a body next to me and the owner of the body brushed my hands away feebly.

The group I was a part of numbered about sixteen when we were led to the warehouse. We walked in twos, asked to hold our hands up all the while. Sixteen people who had been brave enough to leave their homes to join in the looting, despite the rumors that the armory had been broken into, the prisons opened and the prisoners armed; despite the occasional sounds of guns going “bakau!! bakau!! bakau!!” sometimes very close, sometimes far off; despite the occasional body on the sidewalks. We were the few young and old, male and female who dared to risk it all for the rolls of fabric, the brand new TVs, the boxes of canned food, the refrigerators still in the bubble wrap, from stores abandoned and those broken open.

They found me by Maurel & Prom, with a bag full of sardines and a 25kg bag of rice. Hungry mouths awaited my return… in vain.

When they rolled up the warehouse gate, sunlight flooded the insides. There was already a number of people within. A face caught my eye before the door was pulled down and locked. She was bleeding from a wound on her face, where her left eyebrow was supposed to be. I was told later that a stray bullet had missed her head, but grazed her face and took off the skin along her brow.

Day 10

We didn’t need to see to know that some of us had died. The stench of death filled the air. I breathe in the stench of decay, made peace with it and begged for death to take me too. What a miserable way to die, locked up and forgotten – starving to death in the dark.

I traced my ribs with my index and middle fingers, the skins of which I had chewed until I tasted blood, just like I did with the 8 others. I winced as my raw, bloodied fingers made contact with my body, salty from dirt and dried sweat. I had started picking on the calloused skin of the soles of my feet… anything to stay alive.

Someone moaned in the dark, “How can one human being be so cruel to another. I have never done you wrong… water… a drop”. The voice faded into inaudible whimpers.

Day 12

I assumed the number of days spent in confinement by the number of times the light which filters through the tiny holes in the roof high above disappeared. I am tormented by what I did. My teeth remember, I can still feel the ripping, the wetness, the metallic taste on my tongue, the other taste – rot. My hands remember how they groped around, how they found limbs, how they aided in committing the unthinkable. I remember…

I remember cupping my hands to catch my urine, I remember bringing them to my lips, drinking fast so I can catch some more. I remember suffocating from the stench of human waste and decay, praying to die and fighting to live. I remember asking, why me? But then remembering that the only sound in the room came from me. I thought of the silence and how loud my breath sounded. Something to be thankful for.

There came another sound, one I wasn’t a source of. I had concluded that I was the only one alive. Unless I was wrong, the sound couldn’t possibly be coming from inside. It was something outside! A person perhaps. I had to do something to get their attention. My first thought was to bang on the metal gate of the warehouse but I wasn’t sure were the entrance was anymore. I didn’t know where anything was. I resorted to calling out but my voice wasn’t strong enough. I tried so hard. I didn’t think they heard me because the sounds stopped. I curled up on the ground and wept, dry painful sobs.

I don’t know how long I lay there for, it might’ve been a few hours or a whole day. I was woken up by the noise of the steel doors rolling up and blinding light filling the room. The image I opened my eyes to …it haunts me still. If only I could peel it away…

A part of me left that warehouse, a part of me stayed behind. For a few years I lived a hollow shell, deadened. It took more than I ever can explain to fill that hollow, to revive that deadness. When I finally did come back alive, the colors of my world became much brighter, the children more alive, laughter enthralled me and the rise and fall of a breathing chest caused me to smile and sigh.

 To live is to be alive. To be alive is to give love and by loving you push another to live, for goodness is contagious.

This is but one story, many remain untold.

Long live the revolution, long live the supreme council of the revolution. Fellow Gambians, this is not a magical question. Downfall to the Sir Dawda administration… downfall to the…”

July, 1981.

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