In Gambia, relatives of the disappeared search for answers in the wake of a hated regime
Pensioner Sarjo Manneh celebrated more joyfully than most when former leader Yahya Jammeh agreed to leave Gambia in January.
After a decade, he believed he might see his son again. But nearly a month later, he is still waiting.
His son Chief Ebrima Manneh, a journalist for a pro-government newspaper, went missing in 2006 during a summit held in the tiny west African country.
Agents of the feared National Intelligence Agency (NIA), which reported directly to Jammeh, appeared at the offices of the Daily Observer and took him away.
His colleagues and family have never seen him again.
In 2009 Gambia’s then attorney-general Marie Saine-Firdaus told parliament that Manneh was not in state custody, while others including the current chief of police claimed he was living in the United States.
Jammeh’s stunning electoral defeat in December - after 22 years in power - triggered the release of many political prisoners - but not the journalist.
“My hope is shattered,” his father said.
Despite the crushing sorrow he feels, Manneh is shaking off the fear that kept him from fighting a system of secret police and trained killers that took an unknown number of lives.
“I want to institute criminal action in court against Yahya Jammeh and those responsible for the disappearance of my son,” Manneh said.
Gambian diaspora media regularly published lists of the unsolved crimes concerning the missing, appealing for details and circulating years’ worth of rumours about the most high-profile cases.
And there are nascent signs the new government of President Adama Barrow is determined to bring closure for families like the Mannehs, even while mired in a financial crisis and faced with reforming a state that Jammeh’s critics say catered to the interests of one man.
Interior Minister Mai Fatty, one of the most vocal Jammeh opponents within the new administration, has said a body will be set up to look into forced disappearances and to investigate “black sites” that may still be holding victims.
“The responsibility lies on us to give an explanation to our people,” he said.
Pro-regime figures may still be holding Gambians incommunicado.
“Some people may still be held and are not known because the previous government has so many detention centres that were not disclosed to the public,” Fatty said.
Barrow has promised to reform the NIA, changing its name, replacing its chief and promising training for staff whose work would be limited to “intelligence gathering, analysis and advice to the relevant arms of government”.
“An appropriate commission will be established to conduct inquiries into disappearances,” he said.
Almost every sector of society was targeted by the NIA and the “Junglers”, a group of around 40 men described as Jammeh’s death squad.
Tumani Jallow, a 24-year-old soldier with the elite State Guards battalion that personally protected Jammeh, had an elevated status in Gambian society, but when the NIA came this suddenly meant nothing.
After he was arrested in September 2016, taken to NIA headquarters in Banjul, and then whisked to an unknown location, Jallow’s family are painfully aware he may never return.
“He and two of his colleagues in the Gambia Armed Forces were arrested by state security agents shortly after the arson attack on the ruling party’s headquarters,” said his brother Buba Sawo.
“We have searched for him everywhere, but the NIA said he is not in their custody. We are pleading with the current administration.”
Fredy Peccerelli, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist who has helped nations as varied as Guatemala and Sri Lanka identify scores of victims of political violence, said an investigation into the scale of such disappearances would probably take several years.
Work on genealogy, forensics, testimony and any documentation from the prison system would be required, along with the funds – potentially from international donors – to pay for it.
Gambia would have to decide whether to have open hearings, amnesties for those who provided information, or other incentives for whistle-blowing like lesser sentences, Peccerelli said, referring to the truth commission Barrow has promised.
Such testimony could also be key in any future prosecutions. Since Jammeh left for exile last month, arrests of regime targets have begun.
Suwandi Camara, a former fighter for Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, and accomplice Bubacarr Jarju have been charged with abducting a Gambian lawmaker and a businessman in Senegal with intent to murder them.
General Bora Colley, former head of the country’s notorious prison system, was arrested in Senegal last month, though later released without charge.
The biggest fish so far, former interior minister Ousman Sonko, was arrested in Switzerland in late January.
Under investigation for crimes against humanity, Sonko could face prosecution in Switzerland where authorities are under pressure from rights group TRIAL to prove he authorised what they called “large-scale torture that political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders suffered”.
For Adama Kujabie, a relative of Jammeh’s whose father nonetheless fell into the hands of the NIA in 2006, a day in court cannot come soon enough.
“Those responsible for this heinous crime should face justice,” he said, urging an investigation to answer his single, desperate question: “Is he alive or not?”