For Journalist Lamin Fatty, Painful Memories of NIA Torture Still Linger
When Lamin Fatty ended his nine-year exile in Senegal and returned to The Gambia in February 2017 after the exit of President Yahya Jammeh, ‘move on’ was the most common phrase he heard. Everywhere he went, he was told to forget the past and move on. But for a person who went through hell, the heart to move on has always been weakened by lingering memories of the pain and trauma of the past.
Before going into exile in January 2008, Lamin was a news reporter who was battling a politically-charged court case against the Jammeh regime. It all started on the fateful day of 10th April, 2006. At around 2:30pm, he returned to his Churchill’s Town house from a social function when he was stopped at the gate by five plainclothes agents of the notorious National Intelligence Agency (NIA).
“They identified themselves as NIA officers and they told me that I must go with them to their headquarters because they wanted me to clarify some issues,” he says.
Lamin was reluctant to go with them for safety and security reasons. Just two weeks earlier, he and some of his colleagues at the Independent newspaper were arrested and detained by security forces for an article he wrote about a wave of arrests of soldiers and other security agents accused of taking part in an alleged failed coup led by then army chief, Col. Ndure Cham.
“I told the NIA officers that I couldn’t go with them because I didn’t know them even though they showed me their identification cards. I didn’t want to go because they were known for their unfriendliness towards the media.”
But after a few minutes of push and pull, Lamin agreed to go with the NIA agents, but asked them to allow him to go into his room and change his clothes. The agents agreed.
“I asked for that because I figured I could have just disappeared and no one would know my whereabouts. So when I went in, I quickly wrote a note addressed to Halifa Sallah of PDOIS and gave it to a friend who was with me in the house to take it to Mr. Sallah.”
This was in the aftermath of an alleged failed coup and there was a lot of fear in the country. For Lamin, the only person he could think of at that moment who would have the guts to speak out about his plight was Sallah. In the letter, he wrote “Dear Halifa, I’ve just been arrested in my house by five NIA personnel and they’re taking me to the NIA headquarters.” Halifa Sallah and Foroyaa would later publish articles about Lamin’s plight.
From his house, he was driven at breakneck speed in a pickup vehicle first to the Mile 2 Central Prison for a quick stopover and then to the NIA headquarters.
“Upon arrival at NIA, they searched me roughly, removed everything I had in my pockets and took me straight to Bambadinka (an underground cell that served as the regime’s most notorious torture chamber).”
Lamin was kept at Bambadinka for the next seventeen days without being charged or told why he was being detained. On a regular basis, he was tortured.
“I went through hell. It was horrible. I was electrocuted. They’d take me out of my cell to the backyard where they’d dig a hole, bury me half way, and shove a gun in my mouth and threaten to kill me. Other times they’d strip me, pour cold water on me and ask me questions about how I got my information about soldiers arrested after the alleged failed coup and whether I knew Ndure Cham. They’d continue beating me.”
On the 18th day in Bambadinka, Lamin fell sick. He was taken to the military hospital near the State House in Banjul after the NIA authorities realised his sickness was severe. He was returned to the NIA headquarters after undergoing six hours of medical treatment.
“They wanted to take me back to Bambadinka when I arrived but I had to beg them. I went to Cpt. Abdoulie Saine and told him that I was sick and I had to take my medication. I appealed to him not to take me back to Bambadinka. That was the time they put me in a room at the investigation department and at night I’d be taken to the reception to sleep,” Lamin says.
On June 12th, sixty three days after his arrest, Lamin was escorted to the Police Headquarters in Banjul where he was charged with false publication and broadcasting. He was bailed at the Kanifing Magistrates Court on the same day and he went home. After more than four months, he was found guilty and was asked to pay a fine D50,000 or serve one year in prison with hard labour. He paid the fine but later decided to appeal the judgment.
Fast-forward the story – Lamin fled to Senegal for exile for fear of further harm in The Gambia. For the next nine years, he hustled in the streets of Dakar to survive and to take care of his wife and kids in The Gambia.
A few weeks after Jammeh left, he returned home to rebuild his life. But The Gambia he returned to was different from the one he left.
“I felt a bit lost. Being away for so long made everything here different. It felt strange,” he says.
Despite some personal adjustments, how to shake off the memories of the past remains Lamin’s biggest battle.
“The bad memories come all over again quite frequently. The NIA headquarters is still there and of course it always reminds me of what I went through during my detention. The TRRC is on. Each time I hear witnesses testifying about the tortures and maltreatments they suffered during the former regime, they always make sense to me. These are familiar treatments. Whenever I listen to their stories, I hear my own story. It’s not easy.”
Today, Lamin works as a talk show host at a local radio station, an opportunity that eases his stress and boosts his healing process. He’s one of the four journalists the ECOWAS Court of Justice last year ordered The Gambia to pay D6 million in compensation for the violation of their rights and subjecting them to degrading treatments.