That Fateful Night: Lt. Basiru Barrow’s Family Recalls Last Moments with Him
Thursday 10th November 1994 at around 11pm, popular army lieutenant Basiru Barrow took out his military uniform from the closet at his Bakoteh Layout residence, preparing to go to work.
Listen to Lt. Barrow’s son Abdou Aziz talk about the tragic death of his father.
It was less than four months after the military coup that ended the 30-year rule of Sir Dawda Jawara and ushered in Yahya Jammeh, a little-known lieutenant in the army. His ascendancy marked the start of a regime that would become one of Africa’s most notorious dictatorships.
Lt. Barrow’s wife of eleven years, Sunkari Yarboe looked on as he dressed up to head to Yundum Military Barracks for work.
“There was nothing unusual about him that night. It was like any other period when he’d be on the night shift,” she recalls.
Lt. Barrow’s first son Lamin, seven years at the time, was also home that night and he vaguely recollects the image of a happy and ever smiling father in military uniform.
Lt. Barrow’s final words to his family were ‘see you tomorrow inshaAllah’, and he left for work just before midnight. The family went to sleep.
“He left the house unarmed. He had absolutely no arm on him,” Sunkari says.
By 8am on Friday November 11, rumours emerged that there were overnight shootings at the barracks.Worried relatives started rushing to Lt. Barrow’s house to check if he was ok. Sunkari had no idea where he was.
“More people were coming and they were all asking where he was and I’d say he spent the night at the barracks. They were hearing rumours and that’s why they kept coming. We were all confused.”
Later that morning, the Vice Chairman of the AFPRC military junta, Lt. Sana B. Sabally announced that a failed coup was staged and that some people lost their lives.
Sunkari and her family waited and waited and waited for Lt. Barrow to show up. Feeling extremely anxious, she left the house at around 4pm and went out to see if there was anything unusual. She walked for hours, from Bakoteh to Westfield where she received the most shocking news of her life.
“Immediately I got to Westfield, I heard a radio broadcast on BBC Focus on Africa that there was a failed coup d’état and Lt. Basiru Barrow had lost his life. I couldn’t stand on my feet. I fell on my knees and I was carried into a taxi that took me home. I was devastated,” she recalls.
Lamin was at his aunt’s house in Sanchaba when the death of his dad was announced on BBC. “I remember people were coming in and they were crying. I was crying too. Some neighbours came in to console me. I was very young but I understood what was going on and I knew my dad was dead.”
Sunkari and her family heard no word from the government or the army about the whereabouts of Lt. Barrow. They were not told how he died and what happened to his corpse. Instead, a group of military officers visited their house at 3am the next day after his death and took away his military uniforms and other items belonging to the army.
Sunkari and Lt. Barrow’s second wife were later invited to the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency in Banjul where they were questioned by NIA agents about their husband’s activities before his death and who his friends were.
Lt. Barrow’s relatives tried in vain to get his corpse for burial. For the next two decades, all they received was conflicting information about what could have happened to him and where he could have been.
“Some people would come and tell us that Barrow was alive and that he was in Casamance. Others would say he was seen in Mali. And some people would come and tell us they confirmed he was dead. So we were confused and we didn’t know what to believe”, Sunkari says.
All these conflicting stories sowed doubt in the heart of Lamin, too, even though he had realised very early on that he would not see his father alive again.
“Some people told us he was in Mali. But eventually I decided to believe that he was not alive. My dad loved his family so much, and I thought if he was alive and in Mali or anywhere else, he’d have reached out to us.”
Lt. Barrow’s second son, Abdou Aziz was just nine months old when his father died. Throughout his childhood, he thought he died peacefully. But at the age of about eleven, he came across a document that would change his assumption of the father’s death.
“There was an article written by a former soldier, Binneh Minteh that said my dad was killed and things like that. That was the moment I realized that he in fact didn’t die in his sleep but was killed. I went to my mum and told her about it and she got emotional. Each time I asked about my dad’s death, she’d get emotional. So I chose not to push it.”
Abdou Aziz’s only image of his father were his photos stored in an album. “In each of the photos, he was smiling. So I’ve made a mental picture of his happy face and that’s what stayed in my head about my dad”, he says.
Then last Thursday February 28, the family received a bombshell. A former corporal and drill instructor in the Gambia National Army, Alagie Kanyi appeared before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission and gave a chilling account of the brutalities meted out to Lt. Barrow on November 11, 1994. He gave graphic testimony of how he had been beaten up and his head and face swollen beyond recognition.
“What I heard from Kanyi was disturbing… my father’s head bashed to a point of complete destruction, swollen to the point of no recognition and cloths drenched in blood. How am I supposed to ever forgive these people? These revelations have robbed me of my inner peace, my resolve and sleep but most of all, these gruesome scenes have replaced and robbed me of the happy childhood thoughts I had about my father dying in the most peaceful way ever. Kanyi’s narration of how he died actually deprived me of sleep for days,” he says, browsing through his father’s album.
Lamin couldn’t bear watching all of Kanyi’s televised testimony because of its gruesome content. “I’d watch it for a few minutes and then stop watching, and switch it back on and then off again. Still now I’ve not watched the entire testimony. It’s very difficult.”
But for Sunkari, the testimony wasn’t a big shock.
“What Kanyi said wasn’t new to me. I heard these things a long time ago. I heard about his involvement and how Barrow was brutalized to death and things like that. His testimony was just a final confirmation.”
She however questioned Kanyi’s statement that when he attempted to pull the trigger, Lt. Barrow was already dead.
Throughout Kanyi’s testimony, he repeatedly asked for forgiveness from the families devastated by his action. But for Sunkari, there must be justice and her justice is for the perpetrators to be tried and punished for the devastation they caused to Lt. Barrow’s family.
Lamin is not convinced that Kanyi was remorseful.
“You forgive people who really deserve forgiveness. You cannot forgive people who do not deserve forgiveness. We had a happy life. My father was a lovely person who cared for his family and loved his family. To take part in the killing of that person and expect to be forgiven is just something else.”
Abdou Aziz wants to have a closure and start the process of healing. But that’s not possible unless the killers of his father come forward and confess to killing him.
“I want to have that closure but as long as people do not come forward and say ‘I’m the one who killed this guy,’ I don’t think I’ll have the closure. I want to put a name on the guy who killed my dad,” he says.