By Nick Roll
Serekunda, The Gambia – A baptismal certificate. A baseball cap. Wallets, belts, neckties and bank membership cards. At first, the ordinary-seeming items do not seem fit for display in a museum.
Then, with just a few words from one of the slips of paper accompanying them, the objects’ quotidian nature takes a chilling turn.
“Certificate awarded to Kanyiba Kanyl for the completion of Computer Operation course,” one note reads. “He was forcibly disappeared on 18th September 2006. His fate is still unknown.”
This is Memory House, a museum located on a dusty road in Serekunda, just outside The Gambia’s capital, Banjul, dedicated to the victims of former leader Yahya Jammeh.
Objects on display here range from photographs of victims to written testimony to art made by those who suffered under Jammeh’s 22-year reign in this small West African country of 2.4 million.
But just five years after Jammeh was deposed, the museum, which opened in October, pursues a mandate much grander than its small stature of just four exhibition rooms suggests: rewriting the suppressed history of Jammeh’s rule – including, in some cases, uncovering new stories for the first time.
“Our target is the people who have been hearing things [about the Jammeh era]but really are not sure whether to believe it or not,” said Sirra Ndow, Gambia country representative for the African Network Against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED), which runs Memory House.
Jammeh came to power in a 1994 military coup. Over the next two decades, hundreds of Gambians – journalists, migrants, political activists, as well as student protesters and random Gambians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time – would be killed or disappeared.
Others were targeted in “witch hunts” and accused of sorcery. HIV patients were forced to undergo bogus, dangerous treatments.
Rigged and suppressed elections kept Jammeh in power until 2016, when the political opposition was able to unite around Adama Barrow for a surprise victory.
After initially resisting Barrow’s appointment as president, Jammeh eventually fled the country to Equatorial Guinea, where he lives today in exile.
While a post-Jammeh truth commission was essential to publicising many of Jammeh’s atrocities for the first time, Memory House hopes to extend that conversation.
“Just people knowing what happened is an act of accountability,” Ndow told Al Jazeera. “People forgetting leaves [behind]impunity … For most people, they just hear the stories, and they don’t get to feel it. Memory House brings that element of feeling it.”
Tallying some 250 victims of the state or its agents, The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) published its final report in December, which called for everything from constitutional reform to the prosecution of Jammeh.
The government’s response – outlining which of the myriad of the report’s recommendations it will pursue, and how – is due on Wednesday.
But – while much has been said of the attempts at reconciliation, reparations payments and eventual trials – to this day, some Gambians dismiss accusations against Jammeh as unfounded smears, and some victims of the infamous witch hunts still face social stigma in their communities.
Memorialisation “helps to educate the public by keeping a permanent record of the history, perspective and context of a period of gross human rights violations. This is important as it allows victims in particular to control the narrative,” said Salieu Taal, president of the Gambian Bar Association, which has produced policy papers on options for carrying out the TRRC’s recommendations, in an email.
Memory House “will play an important role in educating generations of Gambia of a dark chapter of our history which we must collectively ensure never happens again. It is important that the lessons of the [post-Jammeh transitional justice] process are mainstreamed in our education system to instil a culture against impunity.”
Despite 871 days of testimony, the TRRC could not possibly cover every victim of the Jammeh regime, which is why Memory House trained three Gambian women to document more crimes.
Their work is displayed in an exhibition that opened earlier this month, titled We. Are. Not. Done.
Portraits and testimony from victims and their family members dot the museum’s courtyard.
“My mum was eight months pregnant when she was accused of being a witch,” reads the text accompanying portraits of one woman, going by the name Fatou, hiding her face to protect her identity.
“[My mother] lost the child … My grandmother is still affected. She gets angry for no reason; she throws stones at us and closes the gate saying ‘nobody will leave the house’.”
“I dropped out of school at grade 5 because I was being bullied that my mother is a witch, which is why I agreed to get married at an early age. [People still] mock us about being witches … I have no friends,” the testimony reads.
“This is my first time sharing this story.”
The healing process
While the delivery of the TRRC report was hailed by rights groups as a milestone, its release was also hampered by delays and concerns that a government with lingering Jammeh apparatchiks would not take it seriously.
Barrow won his re-election last year with support from some members of Jammeh’s old party, which still holds seats in the National Assembly. The constitution, judicial sector and national security sector still need significant reforms after being warped by Jammeh’s rule, activists and the TRRC report have declared.
Memory House maintains financial independence from the state – relying on grants and outside partners to keep its exhibitions free.
“[Memory House] is a way to keep not just the government’s minds but the public’s minds on the long-term nature of the transitional justice process,” said Sara Bradshaw, programme director at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, which counts Memory House, located at ANEKED’s headquarters, as a member site.
“Since the 2016 election, [civil society groups]have really pivoted their work to make the transitional justice process as inclusive as possible, and as victim-centred as possible.”
Reed Brody, an American lawyer who works with Jammeh’s victims, also said there is a “continuing battle over the narrative” of Jammeh’s rule.
“You want the current generation and future generations to remember, also, that Gambians insisted on accountability for these things,” he said.
In some cases, Gambians are still learning harsh truths of the Jammeh era for the first time. A Gambian journalist covering the museum recently found herself looking at a display about a family member, whom she never realised had been a victim, Ndow recalled.
A fifth grader passing by found out her father’s death was linked to Jammeh. “We have individuals walking by, walking in, not knowing what is here, only to realise, ‘Oh, this is my family member,’” Ndow said.
Ndow’s family is represented in the displays as well. A social security card and passport belonging to her uncle, Saul Ndow, sit on display, a final testament to the government critic allegedly killed and disappeared by Jammeh’s regime in 2013.
“It goes a long way towards the healing process” on a personal level, Ndow said of having her uncle’s effects on display – but she is not alone.
“Most of the victims were powerless,” during the Jammeh era, said Ndow. Now, though, being able to share their stories “brings back their power”.