YOUTH AFFAIRS

GAMBIAS DAY OF INFAMY: APRIL 2000 STUDENT MASSACRE; GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN

Mathew K Jallow, Madison Wisconsin
It was a cool summer morning and darkness was slowly giving way to a morning full of promise. It was at that time of day when the light seemed to chase the darkness away and gradually everything around became visible again after the long dreaded night. As little morning birds chirped their melancholic melodies high up the mahogany bantaba trees, a lone woman was walking from the village well carrying water on her head. She wGambia school childrenalked towards her hut with deliberate slowness as if without a care in the world. When she was barely a few meters from her hut, she seemed to mumble something inaudible even to herself. She appeared lost in her thoughts. In reality, she was preoccupied with the life changing event that was about to happen to her son that day. It was all about her son, Yankuba. As she approached the entrance of her hut, she slowed down. At the entrance of her mud hut, she stopped for a second, reached up her head with both hands stretched out, lifted the heavy jar of water from her head, and staggered in through the narrow door. Her son, Yankuba was still asleep, but today he would be admitted to a high school twenty miles away in the capital, Banjul. The principal at St. Augustines High School, had asked all new students to assemble at the school gymnasium at 8 am. prompt. Yankuba was one of the few students who had aced the high school exams and her mother Musukebba could not be prouder. She had invested everything in her world so her only son will one day have all the things she never had in her own life. She was willing to give anything so her son too will also go to Tubab Banko to get a good white’s education. She did not know it then, but her son Yankuba was already about to make history. He would be the first boy from their village of Sifoe to attend the prestigious St. Augustine’s Catholic High School. Musukebba had prayed and waited for this day all these years. And today was the day her dreams would come true. Fifteen miles away to the north, in Yuna village near Sukuta Sabiji, Kumba Sowe was about to begin preparing a breakfast of porridge and kadam for her fourteen years old third son.

This was Hamadi’s first year at St. Augustines High School, and his handsome child face and calm mannerism made his mother so proud of him. Even his normally strict father, dotes excessively on him. And Hamadi felt special. His family was not very wealthy, but they had enough to get by comfortably. Hamadi was very close to his mother. He took to heart what his mother told him one year ago. It was late evening after a rain shower two summers ago. Hamadi and her sister were arguing over who should get wood fuel for that evening cooking, when Kumba their mother walked in on them. Speaking softly, she took Hamadi aside so her daughter could not hear her. She told Hamadi that his sister Juma was going to get married some day and he was going to have to do the job around the house. Look here son, Kumba said admonishingly to Hamadi, these sheep, those goats, those cows are all yours. Juma will soon leave you here and she will take nothing when she goes to husband’s village. The only thing she has here after her marriage is whatever; you choose to give to her. Then the mother and son walked side by side in the court yard before they went their separate ways. In Brikama city, the morning rush was taking off at a very fast past. At the car park, bus boys were clamoring for the last passengers to fill their buses, before they set off for the capital twenty two miles away. But, today there was something about Kombo Brikama that did not feel right. Around the market square, clusters of people stood in groups talking feverishly while frequently pointing in the direction of the Police Station barely a quarter mile down the Banjul highway. Just outside a fruit store under a mango tree, a group of students in their various school uniforms assembled. The look on their faces was somber and betrayed anger and pain. As the students talked and gestured, a car carrying several wailing women drove past towards the direction of the police station. Soon, news of the death of a student, Ebrima Barry, in police custody had spread like wild-fire. Before long, it was the only subject in people’s mouths. A shadow of anger and frustration blanketed the entire region from Banjul to Brikama and beyond. Ebrima had been a good student, who had never had any brush with the law. Now, he was dead.
The crowd in the market area began to grow larger as more and more people assembled there to catch a bus or a taxi for the long drive to the Banjul/Serekunda metropolitan area. A lone police man stood watch at the corner where the Banjul/Brikama highway split into a forked road. He was directing traffic to release the bottle neck created by the volume of traffic around the police station down the road. At that moment, a group of students the same age as Ebrima, climbed the back of the yellow bus, before the bus boy shut the door behind him. He tapped the bus twice as a signal to the driver the bus was full. Within seconds, the driver began to speed like a maniac through the crowded streets of Brikama towards Nyambai and beyond. Even this early in the morning, Ebrima Barry’s death at the hands of Brikama Police was threatening to topple the fragile military regime. It had become a rallyinGambia school children 2g cause that had brought together people frustrated over the continued occupation of the government by an illegitimate government. The people had enough of a military rule and were prepared to show it. The nation, more specifically the Kombo and St Mary’s area, was in a near turmoil. All the signs were there for a popular uprising and the students were leading the way. If the military regime was going to collapse, it was going to happen here; it was going to happen now, between West Field junction and Old
Jeswang village. Thousands of students had filled the road ways along this one mile stretch of boulevard. They were demanding answers. They wanted accountability and the swift exercise of the justice system against those involved in the death of Ebrima Barry’s under police custody in Brikama. School had been cancelled for the day and this was conveyed over radio and television. At the corner of Westfield, close to the George’s family residence, Hamadi Bah, stood in the crowd with hundreds of other students. He had never met any of the students around him, but today, they were all one family. On the other side of GTTI, along the Old Jeswang graveyard, Yankuba too joined other students in the protest march.

This was as far as the bus would take him. The police did not permit any student to continue on to Banjul. As the shouts and the chants grew louder, Yahya Jammeh and his thugs had become alarmed. The lives of everyone in the military regime hung in the balance. By mid-afternoon what was mostly a students’ demonstration, was turning to be a full-fledged national rebellion. The military government could sense their lives slip right out of their hands. It was a moment of truth or soon it would be too late. Meanwhile in Bakau, Yundum and Banjul, fully armed police and soldiers in riot gear were finalizing plans for an assault. It was the last thing the students, mere children, expected from their own security forces. The military trucks came from every conceivable direction, headlights turned on and speeding up and down the Kanifing highway in what seems to have been coordinated act of aggression. The security forces positioned themselves in places where the number of students seemed largest. The arrival of so many security forces seemed to agitate the students along the Westfield/Old Jeswang highway. They refused orders to disperse, and instead pelted the forces with rocks and other projectiles. That was the fatal error. The response from the military and security was quick. Orders to shoot were given. Within minutes the bloodbath had begun. It took only a few minutes, but the carnage was everywhere. And people began to run helter shelter to nowhere but in every direction. The pandemonium was like something no one had ever witnessed. When the dust had settled, sixteen bodies bodies lay dead; covered in their own blood. In Westfield, near the George’s home, Hamadi lay on his face. From the back of his head, a single bullet wound was visible where dark red blood oozed out slowly. A single slug now lodged in his brain entered above his neck as he fled from the police advancing on them. In Old Jeswang, Yankuba, lay motionless on his side. His mouth was closed, and his eyes were wide open looking up the heavens as if in a gaze. His brand new school uniform was soaked in his blood. Elsewhere, more bodies were found, lying motionless and dead; all of them school children.

But as the tragedy of the morning ended, the mourning of a nation had only begun. News of the massacre soon spread. Along the Westfield/Old Jeswang highway, there wasn’t a dry eye. The gruesomeness of the massacre was beyond belief. It defied explanation. As children looked at their elders and asked for answers, their elders could only respond with misty eyes. They had no answers themselves, only questions. Before long, the bloody afternoon had turning into darkness. In Sifoe and Yuna, both Musukebba and Kumba were growing increasingly worried that their sons had not returned home after school. The two boys along with others were identified on the scene where their bodies lay by the names on the books they were carrying. Then an emergency bulletin over radio and television was made requesting family members to get their loved ones from the mortuary. Musukebba and Kumba soon leant of the fates of their sons. The sons they had both nurtured and watched grow up before their own eyes were no more. Death had come and stolen them. At her son’s gravesite, Musukebba, cried until she had no more tears. She felt she had nothing more to live for. The pride of her life was gone. The son she adored and lived for will not be around anymore to put a spark in her worried eyes. She can no longer hold his head in her hands and press it lovingly against her warm body. In Yuna, Hamadi’s mother Kumba cried uncontrollably as his body wrapped in white satin was being lowered into the shallow grave. She will never see her little boy again. In the morning she had held him briefly. Now, she wished she had held him tightly and never let him go. Today, six years after one of the bloodiest day in the Gambia’s history, there are more questions than answers. But, since then, there have been more killings and the more blood the regime spilt without a national reaction, the more emboldened it became. Today, killings have now become a routine practice that the Yahya Jammeh exercises as a method of governance. The fifteen students and journalists whose lives this regime has so cowardly snuffed out, will never be forgotten until justice for them is done. We Gambians will stand for nothing less than full justice for the dead, their families and the entire Gambian people.

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