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In the Days of Jammeh, Professionalism was thrown into Dustbin– Ex Navy Commander Recounts His Torture, illegal Incarceration

Arrested in the wee hours, subjected to repeated tortures and questionings at the onetime most feared state institution, the NIA and left languished at Mile II prisons for more than five years without charges, completely with no family access, was the exact characterisation of the circumstances that brought to an end the military life of a former navy commander.

Appearing before the truth-telling commission (TRRC) on Tuesday, Mahmud Babadi Sarr, who enrolled into the navy section of Gambia National Army as a cadet officer in the first republic, following his decorated experience as a sea navigator was implicated in the 2006 alleged foiled coup plot led by then army chief, Colonel Ndure Cham to remove ex-ruler Yahya Jammeh. He has always denied participation in the attempted coup. 

Prior to 2006, Sarr was moved from his role as a Navy Commander in 2004 and relegated to the director of admin at the defence headquarters in Banjul where he worked closely with Ndure Cham.

Mahmud Babadi Sarr

He recalled that he was arrested by his juniors, private soldiers after they stormed his compound in the middle of the night only to break his window and informed him of his arrest.

“They took me to the waiting car outside and it was driven by Sulayman Jobe and in front of the vehicle, you have Tumbul Tamba with four arresting team. I remember Ismaila Jammeh,” he told the commission. 

“I was arrested in the presence of my wife, my two children and my wife’s nephew and niece. They shouted at me. They were private soldiers and they thought they had all the powers to do whatever they wanted. 

“In a normal situation, when you conduct an arrest on a senior officer, an equivalent officer should have been co-opted to arrest but in the days of Yahya Jammeh, professionalism was thrown into the dustbin. They didn’t tell me at all why they were arresting me,” Sarr told Counsel Sagar Jahateh. 

However, he complied and joined the vehicle with the jungulars onboard. He said Ismaila Jammeh and his colleagues entered his house and asked his wife to surrender to them his telephone, which he never recovered. He recalled that from his house, he was driven to Fajara barracks where the late Alpha Bah, another coup suspect, was picked up and taken to Mile II. 

The state later announced that Alpha Bah, member of Gambia National Army, Daba Marena, then director of NIA, Alieu Jobe and host of others were escaped enroute to Janjanbureh prisons after their vehicle was somersaulted. This statement was never believable. Sarr told the Commission that he and these people were all being detained at Block 5 in the main-yard security unit at Mile II before their executions while Musa Savage, Pierre Mendy, Alieu Ceesay, Alieu Jobe, Tamsir Jassey, Yaya Darboe, Bunja Darboe were tried and sentenced to nine years.

According to his testimony, he still didn’t know why he was arrested for until it was announced on the radio at the Mile 2 prisons that they were accused of staging a coup. He recalled being taken to NIA for panel interrogation led by NIA deputy director, Momodou Hydara was the deputy director, Lang Tombong Tamba AS acting CDS, Baba Sawo, member of the NIA, Demba Sowe, from the police Serious Crime Unit, Alagie Martin, Musa Jammeh, Tumbul Tamba, Ismaila AND Modou Jarju alias Rambo.

 “At that time it wasn’t known that some of these people were part of a special group called jungulars. It was after this it became visible that they are a special group and it was during this operation they started wearing the ‘black black.”

During the interrogation, he said Lang Tombong told him that they know that he was not part of the coup but he was perhaps being informed about the issue.

“I told him that the only thing I know was that when I went to Ndure Cham’s office and he [Ndure Cham] looked at ‘this man’s’ picture [referring to Jammeh] and told me if I have the opportunity I am going to kick him. I said that’s what I once heard from Ndure Cham and that’s all.”

He said some panellists including either Musa Jammeh or Tumbul Tamba were not satisfied with his response, who tried to force him to admit but he refused.  

“Ismaila [Jammeh] was having a rubber truncheon and hit me on the head. Then Hydara told me Mr Sarr if you don’t want to talk, we will bring you at a time when it will be very inconvenient to you.”

He took this to mean that he would have been brought to the NIA and deprived of a timely sleep as a possible punishment. 

“Because at the time I didn’t know that these people conduct torture. This was the first time for me to be aware that we have a special squad that is responsible for torturing people.”

He was taken back to Mile II prisons and two days later the jungulars were sent for him, according to his testimony.

“On our way to the NIA I was sandwiched by two jungulars. One of them was having a stick, like a truncheon and he started hitting me on my nose because my hands were cuffed behind. He started hitting me until blood spewed out,” he narrated his ordeal.

When he arrived at the NIA, he said Musa Jammeh asked him to read his statement as he was recorded. He later signed the statement and was taken back to the prisons. After 11 days in detention without evidence against him, he was released and reported to the office as director of admin. A few days later, he was sent a compulsory retirement letter and before any step, a dismissal letter followed. 

Based on his qualification and experience, he picked up a job with a private trawler firm where he worked for four years. He was arrested again and this time it was too long and the torture scaled a new level.

In this interface with NIA interrogators led by head of investigations, Sukuta Jammeh, he was tricked that Ndure Cham has implicated him by telling the investigators that Sarr was the one who should take a charity and throw it in the sea. But he denied. 

“I told the panel that in fact 2006, being the time, they mentioned, I was not at the navy at the time. I left the navy in 2004 so how was it going to be possible for me to leave my position as director of admin go to a different service – the navy where they have a head, a commander. 

“I said we don’t work like that in the military. I told them I was at the defence headquarters and it’s not true. That’s where the questioning stopped and they told me to go and write your statement. I wrote my statement and I didnt sign in,” he said.

Expecting to receive a severe torture this time, he padded up in double wears including jeans to avoid the pains directly inflicting on his flesh. 

“I was ushered in a dark room and asked to sit on the floor. I leaned on the wall but they said I should move away from the wall. After sometime, I adjusted to the darkness and I could recognize Rambo [Modou Jarju]. They stared flogging me at the back. The whip they were using has a sharp object at the end which lacerations on my back.”

But they would soon realize that pains weren’t inflicted on Sarr as they expected and one of them conducted a search on him. 

“They were three and Modou Jarju didn’t take part in the beating but he was coordinating. They lifted my clothes and started beating my bare back and as a result I suffered some lacerations.”

At this stage, he displayed his torn jean shirt he was padded in before it was removed and the jean is visibly torn up by the whips.

Sarr displaying his torn jean shirt to TRRC commissioners during his testiomy as he recalled the dark night of severe beating at the NIA torture chmaber in 2009
Sarr displaying his torn jean shirt to TRRC commissioners during his testiomy as he recalled the dark night of severe beating at the NIA torture chmaber in 2009

He later realized that the trick played by the NIA that Daba asked him to take charity at sea wasn’t Daba’s word but alleged that Captain Bunja Darboe said it as a way of buying his freedom from custody. He said he came to know that when he read the statement written by Sarjo Fofana, his fellow detainee. 

“After my interrogation at the NIA, Bunja was called, two or three days later and he was told that what he said about me was false because when you look at the timeline that could have been possible for me to leave my headquarters and go to the navy. 

“And from the Fofana’s statement, I saw the changes. He [Bunja] cancelled the statement where he mentioned me and he said he forgot that it was Fofana who was supposed to take out the charity. Hence, he works at the navy. So, it was on that basis Fofana was charged and I was left at the prisons languished for 5 years, 4 month 2 weeks,” he told the commission. 

He explained that in 2013, he was invited to the NIA when he was still held at Mile II only to be told by the director, Louis Gomez that he was all along innocent.

“He told me that they had written to Yahya Jammeh but they did not receive any response from him. He said one year later they also sent a reminder but did not receive any response again. He said they wouldn’t want to write again because Jammeh could think that he has a special interest in my case. 

“Yahya knew very well. He was aware of my detention because there were some correspondences where my late uncle wrote in appealing for my release. And he [Yahya] wrote back to say that I was accused of a coup and that it was due to a shared luck that I wasn’t taken to court,” he shared his ordeal.

Sarr said throughout his detention, he was completely inaccessible by his family while he never wanted to seek legal means to challenge his illegal incarceration due to fear of reprisals. He was eventually released in the general amnesty given in by ex-leader Yahya Jammeh in July 2015.     

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