By Mustapha K Darboe
A normal Tuesday it was, this day. I woke to a huge expectation as a journalist. The Truth Commission was to elevate me to ‘level 4 access’. You know, one of those privileges that got you access to some so-called ‘state secrets’ or security installations.
This was an exciting day, I was going to an unfamiliar terrain. I was no friend to security. I was no friend to soldiers particularly. I have always found their uniform to be intimidating. To the gun, I am completely allergic. But that was to change.
The Truth Commission probing the human rights violations of “wo mo meng beh jang” was to visit the Fajara Barracks. We were to see structures, places and men who paid silent witnesses to horror. There on November 11, 1994, soldiers killed soldiers for power and money.
For a journalist of my standing—not that I am any relevant except that pen is what entirely pays the bills—this visit was like treasure hunting. More like those lost ships of gold that sank off the coast of kulum jumbeh. You know, stories were told of such ships belonging to Mansa Musa’s Brother King Abubacarr the 1st.
At the barracks, I was the first to arrive. It was my first time there. At the gate I found a man with AK47. As they would say, he was the man ‘mounting the sentry’. He appeared as if he was smiling with me. In his eyes though was a glitter, one that is red. Actually, I could not tell if he was even happy I was there.
One reason I do not go to soldiers. My phobia with the green wears and the gun was getting the best of me. As I approached the man at the gate, I slowed my pace. There is not extending of hand here. The one with gun was not moving. He showed no interest talking to me either.
As I walked through their gate, I saw a man moving with what looked like a stick under his arms. That guy has a smiling face. “Sir,” I said extending my hand. That is a friendly gesture.
For sir, I do not even like the sound of it. I don’t like titles that make some more important than others or distinct others from others. In short I am an unapologetic anarchist. I don’t like order. It is a damn prison. One reason I don’t use Honorable in my story. Why would only a few people be qualified to be called Honorable? And yet the people who cannot be Honorable are the ones feeding the Honorables.
But yeah, here though it is different. Soldiers they like “sir. I, a scared young man, wanted to please them. This man is kind, at least he appeared kind. He rushed my hand. “Yes sir,” was his response. For someone quite used to that greeting that way, I was not sure if he was happy with me or was merely doing his job.
But that was it. “How can we help you?” he started a conversation. In a world where I come from, a welcome and a cup of water first would be nice. Oh but that is not here. There, your identity must first be established. I remember one soldier once told me when a man approaches a guard post, the man there has only one question: Is he a criminal or not? What a cynical being, soldiers! But that is the perfect of them and that is what their job requires. “I am Mustapha Darboe,” I said. “I am with the TRRC”.
The man was staring at me still. He stretched, moved few steps behind to whisper to another. Then drew closer. “Go sit there,” he said pointing at a wooden chair. All this while, the man with the gun was oblivious of our existence. At least, he appears so. He neither looks nor does he appear to care I was there. Perhaps, he only cares about threats.
By look of it, I represent none. I could have voluntarily told him I have never won in a fight, not even in my childhood days. But that would not be necessary. So I sat, staring at two gun men. One at the main gate and another few feet from me.
Then it occurred to me that I need attaya. But that place was not GPU or The Standard, so I could not make one. As a secondary option, I opted for coffee. Walking towards me at that point was a female soldier, muscular and intimidating with AK47 dangling to her right side.
They mean business, they always do. “Hello madam,” I said hesitantly. “Is there a place I could get coffee here?” She looked at me, astounded with the kind of expression like “what the f**k is he thinking”. But with that bag I have and that dress and look, I was definitely a stranger.
“There,” she pointed at the fence. Obviously, it must be at that direction but where we were we could not possibly see any shop that may be there. So I am getting used to few words. It is only up to me to make it make sense. I chuckled, smiled and complimented “thank you”.
As I got up to head for the shop where I am supposed to buy Nescafe, the man with the stick under the arms realized I have left my bag behind. “Hey,” he called my attention. “Where are you going?” Until that moment I did not know he knew I was alive. I explained my reasons and the expression on his face changed.
“You are our guest,” he said. “If you need something, you should let me know.” I thought I was in trouble. “Follow me,” he said. I looked at him and smiled. For me, my smile, as ugly as I am is my biggest charm in my opinion. Oh yeah, I do it often.
So I picked my bag and followed him. We walked shoulder to shoulder but it would not take a minute before he reminded me that “we’re in a camp”. Oh yeah, there they don’t tolerate much loitering.
There is no “kufan sangho”. Every dot of rain must follow a straight path. We passed few soldiers and got to a room. “Here,” he said, pointing to a small room.
As we entered, we were received with noise. Everyone was talking at the same time. How can they be so discipline and so indiscipline at the same time? This was messy and beautiful at the same time. There were few guns. I was looking all over. I got distracted and I was not interested in the coffee anymore. Just wish to understand these brothers.
I sat on a worn-out couch facing the television which was on. This is military hospitality! The man who brought me had already walked out. I only got to know he left after the man he asked to prepare coffee for me asked, “tea or coffee”.
“Coffee sir,” I am becoming them now. As he prepped the coffee, I sat looking. The building is their reception at the Fajara Barracks. Its cardboard ceiling clearly had rust all over. It suggests it leaks during rainy season. The couch was dilapidated. The structure was generally ok.
The TV set was becoming louder now, perhaps because I have started listening and paying attention to the obedient soldier making my coffee. As they chatted, they joked and, pamm my coffee was before me.
I hesitated to take a sip for a while. It was too hot. Theirs are strange ways, I murmured to myself. In the meantime I was submerged into their conversation. Unlikeliest of topics though, they were talking about the political situation in Venezuela. I sat there amazed as I watched soldiers talk about the America-Venezuela issue, the regional ramifications for South America and more.
How could I mind my business? I was drinking my coffee now but my mind was not on it. These people are not just muscles and guns, they are brilliant people, I said to myself. As the chatters continued, my good friend with the stick came back to the room. He had already announced my presence in the camp to the boss. In this new world of mine, only the boss has the answer!
“The commander wants to see you,” he said. I am now elevated. But with that message came the real taste of the coffee. It does taste like “dukula”. Shit, I said. The man looks perplexed. “Is there a problem,” he asked. “No sir, I am fine,” I said.
I nearly messed up. Whatever the coffee was, it does not taste like one! Or could it be an expired one. Well, “sori faneh buka waren dendeh”. I, poof, walked out. Before I stepped out of the door, I told them that I am grateful for their kindness. They too appeared happy. I must say that few of them spoke to me, mostly greetings.
This man, I think he is Lamin, walked me to his boss. There, he was, the boss of the camp, the famous Fajara Camp. Captain Yahya Darboe sitting behind a modest table, modest chair. The office was like that of a school principal’s at a far-flung rural area.
“Sit,” he pointed at a chair. There was a modest arm chair next to his office table. Any Government executive director resigns under such conditions. I sat facing him. He looked innocent. At first, he does not seem to know what to say as a conversation breaker. Perfectly understandable. He sat in front of a journalist.
And to most people in Gambia, journalists are not better than Joseph Conrad. The idiot Western Writer behind the Heart of Darkness. The man who visited paradise, the Congos, the home of Africa’s most mighty River Congo only to write a book that demeans the angel that dwells the heaven. And be completely oblivious to the beauty that defines heaven, its inhabitants. All the more reason our mutual father Chinua Achebe was not kind to Conrad.
But that was Conrad. Back to the Barracks. The man’s deep voice took over the small office. The office is a real military office with a back door. That must be for escape in times of attack, I thought. Darboe does not know me. I know him. When he was released from jail through a presidential pardon in 2015, I was the only journalist who interviewed his mother. He, like close to 70 people, soldiers and civilians, were arrested and jailed for reported involvement in 2006 coup led by Ndure Cham.
Neither him nor his Stickman knew about me. I know him very well. Then I started the conversation and he now got comfortable. He was in fact talking to a brother. I did not request another coffee but someone appeared from the wildness; this time with attaya.
That is the mood I wanted. The TRRC was coming to visit and they were late to arrive. That became of interest to me. But soldiers, it appears, mind their business. Or perhaps, they are not encouraged to talk freely.
At my cynical joke of how the people don’t respect time, he chuckled. He looked at me and immediately looked away. “Well, with us…” he stopped and chuckled. I could tell he wanted to say with the military the luxury of deciding what to do and when is not there. The boss says, 10, orders are 10 and everyone including God must be there at 10. That is that! Period!
He looked away. He stroke me as a brilliant man. And like him, all others I was opportune to chat with are smart. Their reasoning, I have found, to be informed. They know about politics, civilian authorities and social issues and they have opinions about it. They are just television sets switched off on orders that they must obey.
But yeah, the conversation changed social. His family and about me and him and others. Within minutes, the TRRC arrived.
And we were informed. I still had the taste of my coffee in my mouth. He walked me out to the gate to receive the soft-talking Chairman Lamin Sise of TRRC and his team.
We returned to his office with the Commission’s Commissioners. It was a good day. I had already listened to a soldier, a number of them. When we reached back at his office, the people, quarter of those who came with TRRC, could not fit in. The rest had to wait outside.
While we waited, I decided to reflect upon our conversation and the soldiers and their lives. I realized I was talking to a brother and the same time a stranger. The uniform made him a distance man in the group of the supposed villains, enablers of dictator who must be hanged by society.
But wait, he was accused of being a coupist. So maybe he was not complicit. Oh was it just for the uniform. But why was I suspicious of a man I know? It must simply be the uniform, the creation of the imaginary Chinese wall between a brother and a brother based on a profession one has chosen.
He, like the others, have chosen to take a bullet for the republic. But again, how about the brutality of his kind, I mean soldiers who killed and maimed people? But must he pay for someone’s crime?
Clearly, the questions are disturbing. But I have no answers. As I searched in the wild forest of cruel thoughts, Dr Sise was conversing with Captain Darboe. I stood facing the famous football field.
To my right was the direction of the training school. Right in front was the direction Sanna Sabally and his crew attacked the camp from. Behind me was the Ante room. These places were the silent witnesses to execution of soldiers.
I exactly stood where the past collided with the present. The silence of yesterday breaking in the words of a soft-talking Dr and the Stickman. It was time travelling.
But all the structures did play dumb, not even mumbling to the hostility of the wild wind—they failed Basiru Barrow or Abdoulie Faal. They too are guilty, like the soldier who stood there doing nothing.
My awareness to the environment came back. Dr Sise was already in front of me walking with the Stickman. The Stickman, we are told, was there when the killing happened, but like the walls and the trees and the sand at the football field, he did nothing.
I just remembered. His name was Lamin Fatty, a very familiar name before the TRRC. So I must say here that the TRRC’s meeting with security people is always weird, more like the visit of an auditor to the accountant’s office. As he walked the Chairman, he cynically looked at him and asked: “are you the Lamin Fatty?” Fatty laughed, a soft laugh, and said “no, no, it wasn’t me. That one is at Yundum.”
At that point, like everyone else, I started marching to Chairman’s voice from one place to another. Like Yundum Barracks, you look no further to realize that the structures at the barracks were dilapidated. From the office of the camp commander to the rest, a better school is good looking and more comfortable.
It is worse at Yundum where some houses do not even have proper windows and doors. The houses were colonial-like structures with those mighty bricks. The cream-paints on the walls were wearing out. The houses appear terribly old. Sad!
No one would need a nyaa laa to know that these men paid to watch over us are not well taken care of. This was mirrored by Fatty’s statement to Dr Sise when the old man asked if they still have wata wata chew, he chuckled again and said “no”.
With pride, Fatty said the soldiers do have scramble eggs for breakfast some days. According to his account, when the breakfast is “omlet”, the “men are happy”. If one follows the TRRC, one thing you come to accept is that Sise is not good at hiding his feelings about things. The jaw falls, quickly looked back at Commissioners and then silence.
But that is it. This is perhaps how this country serves its servants. Could this explain our problem? Who guards the republic and who guards the guardian of the republic? Certainly, the man who is not encouraged to talk does not know that. If he knows, he is not encouraged to say.
For a minute of conversation near the infamous cook house at Fajara, I got lost in thoughts. The Commissioners have already started walking out of the place. The next stop is the camp’s Fajara side exit. That was where Sanna and others came through to kill their colleagues.
As I thought, I remembered the arrogant statements of show-man politicians saying how much useless the army is, how we don’t need it and how they are a liability.
And yet these men with the gun, angry as I have found out with such unforgivable ignorance, are patient. Like a woman married to a batterer, they too are asked to smile. Perhaps, the military rules are a bad idea. Perhaps, everyone must be allowed to speak.
But as spokesperson Major Lamin Sanyang once told me, it will be a mess if the discipline in the army is not there. “We all have a gun,” he reminded me.
But these thoughts were supposed to be for another day. So walked, we did, to what was to be Sanna Bairo’s footpath. There was none. I profusely looked at the ground, I saw nothing. There was no footprint of a military boot, no Njie Ponkal—just no one.
I pictured as I stood at the place a wailing Sanna maneuvering into the camp with his men. What was Babucarr Jatta saying, if any? How was the environment? These are answers that were not to be found. Disappointed, I sat distant from the crowd as Fatty attempted to explain how the soldiers invaded the camp.
I could not care. If those time-travelling films are true, we could perhaps reverse the world and save Dot or Barrow. That was unsettling. I would be reversed to a 6-year old and my correspondence job would not exist. Then what! I would be a broke kid back to Salikenni.
So I gave up the thoughts. I got up and walked back to the now moving crowd. They headed for a store, some call it a garage, and I headed for the gate. I have heard and seen enough. Even Fatty appeared exhausted, explaining the seemingly inexplicable horror.
There, near the gate, I sat on my wooden chair, the one that welcomed me. And on it I pondered the future of the country in transition, a country whose two brothers have a Chinese Wall between them built by a uniform. But a country that needs a conversation with herself, yet engaged in a social media monologue, a country where so much is wrong and yet no one is willing to admit the wrongs.
But a country where the minority elite would request a World Bank fund even to polish their shoes. The only person who gets to be blamed is the oppressed who got frustrated and use an available means to liberate themselves. That is the wrong we see. But who cares about the wrong that created the wrongs?
After the TRRC was ready with whatever it was that they wanted to achieve, they headed for the gate. I was now standing watching the tired Sise walking with Captain. Now they are done and they were heading for the Commissioners’ air-conditioned vehicle. And it occurred to me that earlier I heard one of the Commission’s lawyers complaining that there was cold bottled water for them during the trip.
As they got to the coaster bus, the two men shook hand and the Chairman got in. Darboe looked at him for a while as the vehicle drove off. I was sure none of his men would walk to him for water. They would go to the tap, not even to the fridge. Perhaps, there is no such luxury in the barracks.
I quickly ran to Darboe and shook his hand. And walked away. At the back of the vehicle, I watched the uniform disappearing into thin air as we quickly left the past. Behind, we left people whose lives are but a routine. They do one thing again and again and don’t get tired.
Long after I left, I wished I had told him “keep the guard”. The republic survives on blood of patriots who willing serve without question, often under abhorrent circumstances.
And like journalists, soldiers willingly take the oath to take the bullet for the republic. If nothing else, our first president Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara has told us at independence that “we (Gambia) are on our own and it is by our own efforts that we must earn our keep.”
And this keep, brother, we must earn. And yes we must and we shall never be provoked by comments or actions of others.