After TRRC Appearance, Jallow Still Haunted by the Ghosts of Bambadinka
It’s a quiet, cloudy morning in Pirang, a small town in Kombo East and Batch Samba Jallow stands behind a locked metal gate of a roadside compound, staring at a small group of food vendors sitting nearby.
Inside the compound, a neat yellow one-storey house, designed in a modern style stand tall. In an open space within the compound, two fancy 4-wheel drive vehicles are parked. This is Jallow’s house and these are his cars. He’s well respected in this community. He’s seen by the people here as a happy man with successes most of them can only dream of.
The reality is that for the past two decades, he’s been a very bitter and unhappy man, haunted by the ghosts of the past.
Last month, Jallow appeared before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) and gave graphic, first-hand account of physical brutalities meted out to him at the detention facilities of the National Intelligence Agency or NIA (now renamed State Intelligence Services or SIS) by security agents.
“Baba Saho came with a rock and hit me hard on my p***s. Very painful. Only Allah knew the kind of pain that was sent through my body… They laid me on the floor and someone among them came and stamped on my last finger until the bone came out. Today this finger is lifeless,” he narrated, demonstrating the lifelessness of the finger to the commissioners.
In tears, he narrated how he was electrocuted, cut from waist to feet and forced to drink his own urine by his torturers in Bambadinka (which means crocodile’s pond in the local mandinka dialect). It’s an underground torture chamber used by the regime to inflict pain and suffering on detainees at the NIA. Throughout ex-president Jammeh’s 22-year rule, Bambadinka epitomized the reign of terror perpetrated against the Gambian people.
Jallow recalled Bambadinka was very dark without any light, and with a terrible smell and slippery floor because of the blood on the floor.
Jallow, a popular headmaster before his arrest and veteran educationist, was picked up from his bedroom in the presence of his wife and children at 4am on the fateful day of 12th October 1995 by NIA agents who accused him of planning a protest in front of the US Embassy against the AFPRC military junta, in the face of looming dictatorship in the aftermath of the 22nd July 1994 military coup.
Jallow’s TRRC appearance on the 28th January was a milestone in his personal battle to free himself from silence, pain and anger, finally. For two decades after his release from detention, he was living in exile in the U.S. Every day, he hoped for a regime change in The Gambia and for a day of reckoning.
Dressed in a black and white plaid button-up shirt and wearing his trademark tan bucket hat and aviator sunglasses, Jallow flips through piles of papers he picks from his living room as he explains to The Chronicle how he got to the TRRC.
“I heard about the establishment of the TRRC while I was in the U.S. and when I came back to The Gambia, I contacted the office and later met the Executive Director, Baba Galleh Jallow. I made it known to them that I wanted to testify and they told me I was the type of people they were looking for.”
After series of sessions with TRRC investigators, Jallow’s big day arrived. He woke up early in the morning, performed his prayers and spoke to his family, hoping to mentally prepare them for the chilling testimonies they were going to hear.
“My family, including my wife didn’t know the details of what I went through, before my testimony. I’d often tell my wife about the cruelties I was put through in general terms, but not the details. I knew I would not hold back anything at the TRRC. So I thought I should prepare them mentally, emotionally. I also asked for their prayers and they prayed for me and I left.”
On the way to the TRRC in Kotu, Jallow had mixed feelings and his heart was beating fast. “I was nervous and a bit confused. It was the first time I would tell my story, my complete story. It wasn’t easy because I was going to expose myself to the world. I was thinking about the implications – how my family, friends and my community would react. I was also afraid because some of the people who tortured me were still here, still in the system and walking freely. There was a lot going on in my mind,” he recalls.
Jallow’s determination to expose the barbarity of his torturers that morning far outweighed any fear or confusion he was going through. And finally, he arrived at the TRRC for the history he always yearned for.
While he was giving his testimony, his family had gathered in front of a TV screen at home to follow. His wife, Safiatu Bojang-Jallow recalls, “It was a very memorable day for us. We were all sitting here and watching the television. There were tears. We broke down throughout the process. What really shocked me was that I never knew they tortured him to that extent. I often asked what they did to him, but he never told me the gravity of it. I felt so sorry for him. Each time he explained something and broke down at the TRRC, we all broke down too. How could they do that to him? How was he able to keep this to himself all this while and stayed strong? These were some of the questions I was asking myself. I cried so much. He’s a good man.”
As Jallow started narrating to the TRRC how his torturers stuffed a sponge in his mouth while beating and kicking him, he paused for many seconds and bowed down his head, crying. To the counsel in front of him and everybody else watching, it was perhaps a brief breakdown and he’d resume the testimony. But to Jallow, it was a moment to decide whether to continue or to get up and leave.
“At that juncture, I contemplated leaving. I was thinking why I should keep on doing this when my life had already been destroyed. My heart was beating fast. But when I looked at the caliber of people presiding over the TRRC, I decided to stay on and proceed.”
Today thanks to his TRRC appearance, Jallow feels he’s a free man. “For 22 years, I felt there was something very heavy inside my chest. For 22 years I battled pain and suffering. I felt sick. But the opportunity to tell my entire story to the world has taken away the pain and suffering. Now I feel free. I’m relieved.”
Though Jallow is on the journey to heal his wounds of the past, he remains haunted by the memories of Bambadinka.
“Bambadinka is forever fresh in my mind. There’s no way anyone who spends even five minutes in Bambadinka can forget the memories of that place. I’ll never be able to shake it off. The horrible smell of the place, the pool of blood on the floor, the sound of the whips landing on my body, the sound of my torturers cursing me as they beat and kicked me, the echoes of my own yelling and crying as I went through the pains of torture, the silence of the outside world while I cried… how can anybody forget,” he explains, with tears now rolling down his cheeks.
“I avoid going anywhere near the NIA (now SIS) complex in Banjul. Each time I pass by, I remember the horrors. That place remains a big emotional scar in my heart. It should have been shielded off so that we don’t have to go through the pain of seeing it all the time. This would allow us to forget about the atrocities committed against us.”
While Jallow is willing to forgive anybody who comes out to confess and seek forgiveness, he’s upset that some of his torturers are still in positions of power while their victims continue to live with the pain of the past. What upsets him the most is that ‘those people might commit the same atrocities against others in the future unless they face justice for their crimes.’
“We are in a situation in which victims and perpetrators are all out there in the same streets. Sometimes we see each other and there’s nothing more painful than to see your torturer walking around comfortably and happily. It’s painful to see them. We shouldn’t go through that. It’s not normal”.
Jallow named Daba Marenah, Musa Kinteh, Foday Barry, Baba Saho and Ebrima Barry as the NIA agents who tortured him. Marenah, who later became NIA Director General, is believed to have been killed following his disappearance in 2006 by the regime. Baba Saho is said to be currently serving as an intelligence attaché at the Gambian Embassy in Guinea. The Chronicle is unable to establish the whereabouts of the rest.