In Gambia, a former beauty queen who says the president raped her when she was 18 years old has testified before a public truth and reconciliation commission that is investigating the atrocities of former President Yahya Jammeh. Fatou “Toufah” Jallow has become a leading voice against the former president, who ruled the West African country of 2 million people for 22 years before his regime ended in 2017. Two other women have also come forward to accuse the former president of rape and sexual assault. Survivors of the regime have also testified during the hearings, which have been live-streamed across the country. The investigation is part of an ongoing process to reckon with the horrors committed during Jammeh’s rule, including killing and disappearing hundreds of people, torture, unjustified jailings and sexual violence against women and girls. From Gambia, we speak with Fatou “Toufah” Jallow, along with attorney Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who is currently leading the prosecution of former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Gambia, where a Gambian beauty queen, who says the former President Yahya Jammeh raped her when she was 18 years old, has testified before Gambia’s public Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Fatou Jallow, known as Toufah, has become a leading voice against the former president, who ruled the West African country of 2 million people for 22 years before his regime ended in 2017. This is Toufah speaking before the commission Thursday. A warning: She describes the attack in graphic detail.
FATOU ”TOUFAH” JALLOW: Yahya Jammeh decided to penetrate me. But before he did, he took out a needle from his pocket, and he injected me on my arm. I’m not sure of what it is or what it was for. … Yahya Jammeh did not want sex with me or pleasure with me. What he wanted to do was to hurt me. What he wanted to do was to teach me a lesson. What he wanted to do was to manifest his ego. Just like many of us can’t believe that a girl can say no, someone like Yahya Jammeh and in his position found it very disrespectful for a 19-year-old from not an elite background, or not the daughter of a president, to somehow garner some kind of audacity to say no to him, that he is a man probably who hasn’t had so many noes. And my no wasn’t because of a sense of understanding or I was better off, I wanted to — my no was just because I felt it was wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Toufah Jallow testifying Thursday before Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. Two other women have also come forward to accuse the former president of rape and sexual assault. Human Rights Watch says that Yahya Jammeh, quote, “handpicked” women and girls to rape or sexually assault while president, requiring so-called protocol girls to be on call for sex. Jammeh denies the claims.
Gambia’s truth and reconciliation hearings have been live-streamed across Gambia in an ongoing reckoning of the horrors committed during Jammeh’s rule, including killing and disappearing hundreds of people, torture, unjustified jailings and sexual violence against women and girls. Members of Jammeh’s death squad have admitted during the hearings to killing migrants, journalists and civilians during the president’s reign. The perpetrators of this violence have never been brought to justice, including Jammeh himself, who fled to Equatorial Guinea in 2017 after losing the 2016 presidential election. At first, he refused to cede power, for weeks, before the leaders in the region helped arrange his exile.
Well, we go via Democracy Now! video stream to Gambia, where we’re joined by Toufah Jallow along with attorney Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who is currently leading the prosecution of the former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh.
We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Toufah, can you describe how you felt yesterday as you testified not only before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Gambia, but you were live-streamed throughout Gambia and the world? You did this for hours yesterday, in graphic detail. Talk about how you feel today, what this meant to you, why you chose to return to Gambia to make this statement.
FATOU ”TOUFAH” JALLOW: Thank you for having me. I feel great. I actually felt like the message has been sent. It was a very difficult day, as you said, hours and hours of testifying. But I thought it was necessary, and it was important that it was translated in our local languages and that we do not hide behind euphemisms anymore. So, it’s actually fulfilling, and I just hope that it contributes to what brings Yahya Jammeh and his allies to justice.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you made a decision to publicly testify. Others who have gone through terrible abuse were protected witnesses. Why did you decide to be so public?
FATOU ”TOUFAH” JALLOW: It’s something that I have thought about, and I completely understand why women decide to be protected or decide not to come out publicly. We have all seen the backlash and all the implications that come with it. But again, if there is no face to what is being said, it will not be taken seriously. People will think of them as just stories and not see the human beings behind these stories. So I decided that I would not hide behind fear anymore. And in order to take back that power, I have to be able to face him, no matter how difficult that might be.
AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of response have you gotten from your fellow and sister Gambians?
FATOU ”TOUFAH” JALLOW: It’s been great so far. Of course, there are supporters of the president that are still reluctant, on calling me a liar and attacking. But, overall, women, especially Gambian feminists, women empowerment groups, women that are serving in the National Assembly, they have really come forward to embrace this moment. A lot of women have come forward. We’ve watched the TRRC, and we have seen women coming there and testifying about abuses that have been committed against their bodies. So, it’s been a very welcoming #MeToo movement for the Gambia. And yeah, the conversation is really ongoing, online and also in our communities.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you briefly describe how you are able to testify today, the fact that you fled Gambia after you were raped, as you describe it, by the president, the dictator of Gambia? You had been crowned a beauty queen in Gambia. And then describe what happened.
FATOU ”TOUFAH” JALLOW: I mean, it’s been a long journey. It is a beauty pageant, but also more of a scholarship pageant to be sponsored to go and study abroad. That was the main focus of the pageantry. And it’s something that I took pride in. And up to date, I do not regret the experiences or the process. I was in it with so many other brilliant young women. It just so happened that the president saw it as an avenue to have access to girls, younger girls, and without questions being asked.
So, I still wear that crown boldly and proudly as a Gambian beauty queen. The beauty, though, about it is that I have owned my truth and the truth of other women and gone through so much healing and so much pain. And it took me a long time to get here, but my mother and my father has been very supportive, and that helps, within the context of the culture that I come from.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, after you were crowned beauty queen and he summoned you to the palace — Jammeh — and you describe graphically what happened to you as you describe that he raped you. Then talk about how you fled the country and why you felt you needed to. I mean, this is what? In 2015. And how old were you?
FATOU ”TOUFAH” JALLOW: I was 19 years old in 2015 when the rape happened, because it happened once. I received a call again to answer to him. Within a dictatorship, I have already at this point seen the consequences of saying no. I could not hide. I couldn’t say no. I would have been taken, whether I wanted to or not. So I had two options. It’s either to keep being used as a sex object, or I run away from everything that I love and know, and start a new life. At that age, I didn’t know where I was going to or what awaited me on the other side of the table, but I took that chance, that I would rather be in the wilderness than be abused or raped time and time again.
AMY GOODMAN: And so you escaped the country? How did you escape?
FATOU ”TOUFAH” JALLOW: I escaped through a taxi. I went to the market to do groceries, just to throw whoever off who was following me. And then I went to Banjul, which is the capital. And I did not take the ferry; I took a boat, because it is unlikely to be found on one. And then I took another car that was transporting livestock, and I sat between two men in the front. And I was wearing a niqab to hide my face and my identity. And I found myself on the other side of the border, which is Senegal.
AMY GOODMAN: And now you’re residing in Canada but have returned to Gambia. An image that is so graphic is people all over the country standing up and saying, with signs, “I am Toufah” — your name, your nickname. Reed Brody, we only have a few minutes. You are leading the push for the prosecution of Jammeh. You’re an attorney with Human Rights Watch. Can you talk about the significance of Toufah’s testimony and where that prosecution stands today? Did the president respond, as he is in exile in Equatorial Guinea?
REED BRODY: Sure. I mean, Toufah’s testimony yesterday was the culmination of several weeks of hearings at the Truth Commission about sexual violence. And you had women coming forward to talk about being raped by Jammeh’s interior minister, by Jammeh’s secret service. You had a protected witness talking about this system, how she was hired to be a protocol girl. She was offered jobs and scholarships, and when she refused to have sex with him, she was fired. You had a cohort, Jammeh’s head of protocol, who described this same system. So, there was an entire system in place.
Now, the Truth Commission, as you mentioned earlier, is just spewing out information about torture, assassinations, now rape, committed by the former president, who lives in exile in Equatorial Guinea. The hope is that when the Truth Commission finishes its work, it will recommend the prosecution of Jammeh, as well as other people who bear the greatest responsibility for the crimes of that period, and that we will move from the truth process, which is very important, to the justice process, which, for most victims, is even more important, in which Jammeh’s henchmen, and hopefully Yahya Jammeh himself, the government will seek his extradition; since Jammeh has victimized not only Gambians, but there was a massacre of migrants from Ghana and Nigeria and Senegal and Togo and Côte d’Ivoire, that there will be a regional consensus in favor of bringing Yahya Jammeh to justice.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Toufah Jallow, Gambian anti-rape activist, returning to Gambia to boldly confront her rapist on national television, and Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch attorney. We want to thank you both for being with us. And your bravery, Toufah, is just overwhelming, I think, for so many people, and inspiring.
When we come back, Colombia is reeling after five indigenous leaders were massacred in Cauca earlier this week, among them the woman known as the indigenous governor of Cauca, Cristina Bautista. Now the president of Colombia has deployed over 2,000 troops to the region. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Flame” and “Calling” by the Colombian-American band MAKU Soundsystem, performing in Democracy Now!’s studios. To see the interview as well as performances of MAKU, go to democracynow.org.