Breaking the Silence: Gambian Beauty Queen Publicly Accuses Former Dictator of Rape

Web ExclusiveSeptember 20, 2019
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Former Gambian beauty queen Fatou “Toufah” Jallow and Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch talk about the ongoing effort to hold Gambia’s former dictator Yahya Jammeh accountable for crimes committed by his regime. Earlier this year, Jallow accused Jammeh of raping her.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue our look at the Gambia, where an ongoing public truth and reconciliation commission is investigating the atrocities of former President Yahya Jammeh, who ruled the West African country of 2 million people for 22 years before his regime ended in 2017. During the hearings, members of Jammeh’s death squad have admitted to killing migrants, journalists and civilians during the president’s reign. 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.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Part 2 of our conversation with Toufah Jallow, who’s planning to address the truth commission next month about how the former president of Gambia raped her when she was 18. We’re also joined by attorney Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, currently leading the prosecution of the former Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh.

We played in Part 1, the Human Rights Watch video of you telling your story, and we’re not going to ask you to tell us again. But you participated in a beauty contest in Gambia to get money for education.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And you won.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And the dictator comes to your crowning and tells the girls, the young women who are part of this, “Do not get married now. Put it off. Get an education.” Is that right?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right. It wasn’t at the pageant itself. He was not there. It was his ministers and the vice president that was present there. But, yes, when we officially met him, he really had a lengthy live-taped video that we had with him where his advice was mostly to concentrate on our education, because the pageant was a scholarship pageant, where you were supposed to have a full-time package to study anywhere in the world that you would want to. So, but, yeah, he really did not want us to get married. He wanted us to focus on education,

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, then he proposed to you.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was so disarming, and he’s, on one hand, giving you this empowering message —

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — and then he has you brought to the palace — you are unsuspecting — and he rapes you. And you then escape the country. Why did you feel you needed to escape the country?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right, because there was not a safe place within the country. It’s a very small country, with less than 2 million people, and everyone almost knows everyone. And it is within the spectrum of a dictatorship. So, I couldn’t leave the city for the village. There was nowhere I could hide or tell anyone my story to. So the only option I knew — I wasn’t sure where I was going to go, but one thing was certain, for sure, is that I have to leave this country or choose to be a sex symbol or toy for the president.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how often have you been able — have you been able to return? Since you left in 2015, have you been able to go back? Your family is there?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right, my family is there, my mom and a lot of siblings. I went back in 2017 for the first time, but it was very on the low. It was just after he left, which was great, because I thought I wouldn’t be able —

AMY GOODMAN: He fled to Equatorial Guinea.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: He fled to Equatorial Guinea after the elections in 2016. So I was very happy, because I thought I would have been here forever and not been able to go back home. I did. And the next time I went back was this June, that I went back home. That is when the report came out, the report with Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International. And I held a press conference in the country and also a woman’s march that I organized.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain that —

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — when you talk about the press conference you held within country. And, Reed, we’re going to ask you about the Human Rights Watch report. But you didn’t have to go back to hold this press conference. You would have been much safer to stay outside of Gambia.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you insist on returning?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: I did insist. I remember when I met with Reed and Human Rights Watch, and they were giving me options of where I could do this — in London, perhaps in Canada. And I insisted on I wanted to do it back home, because I wanted it to hit home. And I didn’t want to be safe and not healthy anymore. I didn’t want to be safe but not alive anymore. The only way for me to resurrect my truth and my Gambianness and who I am is to go back to where it happened, to take ownership of that space and that power. So, irregardless of how I felt about my safety, I thought it was more important for the Gambians to hear it within the Gambian context.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the response of the population? And what was this march? You were really the inspiration for the #MeToo movement in Gambia.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right. It was on both spectrums, but mostly positive. And people mostly didn’t know how to take it, because it was for the first time. It’s not a conversation we do have, especially at that level. We are talking about Yahya Jammeh here, a dictator that, my whole existence, he’s the only person that I knew as a president, and so many other people within my age group. So, a lot of people were shocked that, oh, we are having this conversation at this level.

And a lot of women, a lot of activists, who have been trying to raise this issue but were either silenced or were not given the platform to, felt like it was an opportunity. So it raised the whole conversation about #MeToo and other women coming forward. And within a week, I thought it was very important to give these people a platform to march in the streets for the first time to say, “Hey, we are here. We are survivors. And this is our stories.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, in fact, when other women spoke out after you did, the hashtag #IAmToufah —

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: — was circulating as women told their own stories.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right, yeah, because, as I said in the press conference that I am Toufah, and that means a whole broad of things. It means I am me, this is my age, I’m a survivor, I am all of you and all the women that continue to silently suffer and survive these horrible atrocities on our bodies. So, a lot of people took on to that. They saw themselves in me. They saw themselves in my story. And that is what the #IAmToufah was about.

But from that, too, came another campaign, called #SurvivingMelville, which is another guy, who worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, based in London, going at a very prestigious university. About seven to 10 women came out with the hashtag #SurvivingMelvin and also joined the march past that we had. So it has raised a broader conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: But explain who Melvin was in Gambia.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Melvin works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he was a diplomat, and he is in London. He’s studying law. He’s a lawyer, and — but considered among the elite of the society. That’s who Melvin is.

And since after that happened, the government has called him back. They want him back in the Gambia. The women has put together a case against him in court. He is expected to come back. He has not yet. He has cut off all ties and deleted all his Facebook. But yeah, it’s been a conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch came out with this report in June. Explain the scope of this report and what you found.

REED BRODY: So, together with TRIAL International, we interviewed a number of women. I mean, first of all, many women were identified to us. Most of them refused even to respond to our messages. Three women did directly accuse Yahya Jammeh of rape and sexual assault. Two of them, who we name in the report as “Anta” and “Bintu,” didn’t give their names; they were anonymous. And Toufah, as you see, wanted her name to be attached. Well, she insisted that her name be attached.

But we also interviewed a number of Jammeh’s henchmen, a number of his bodyguards, his protection officers, his security detail, his protocol heads. And they described for us the system, where Yahya Jammeh would coerce women to come and work for him, to come and visit him, and then he would sexually abuse them. He had a whole detail in the presidential palace, the State House, known as “protocol girls,” women who were on the payroll but whose whose real compensation came when they slept with the president. One of his bodyguards said that he chose women as protocol officers based on his sexual fantasies. So, basically, he treated the women of Gambia like his personal property. And it was a whole system, like — for those people who followed Libya, as Gaddafi had, women who he would go around the country, choose and bring to him, and then coerce to have sex.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you come out with this report. Now, you just came out of the trial of Hissène Habré, in Chad, in Senegal, right?

REED BRODY: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Gambia is surrounded by Senegal.

REED BRODY: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But put this in the context of that.

REED BRODY: Well, there are a lot of parallels. The first one is, frankly, that, you know, the kinds of cases that I’ve been involved in are cases that are driven by the victims, and so they’re replicable. I mean, I worked, as you know, on the Pinochet case, the case of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in London. And when we were working on that case, the Chadian victims of Hissène Habré came to us and said, “Can we do that? Can we do that?” And we started working with them, and next thing we know, we’re working with them for 16 years. And finally, Habré was convicted in Senegal in 2016 of crimes against humanity, including rape.

And at that point, Gambian survivors and Gambian victims said, “Can we do that? We want to do that.” And we actually had a meeting in the Gambia, where Souleymane Guengueng, the leader of the Chadian victims, Jacqueline Moudeina, the Chadian lawyer — and we brought Hissène Habré’s victims together with Yahya Jammeh’s victims to explain what we did, how the road was, what the obstacles were, how we overcame them. It was — it’s an inspiration, just as Toufah is an inspiration. And people are going to be looking now to what the Gambians are doing.

Hissène Habré was convicted of rape. But I have to say, we didn’t — in the first 15 years of our investigations, we were talking to women, and they would tell us about everything that happened to them, except for the rape. And so, the rape and the sexual violence came up only on the eve of the trial. And so we were determined here not to let that happen again, not to let sexual violence be overlooked yet again, as it was in the beginning in Rwanda, as it was in the beginning in Yugoslavia, as it was in the beginning in Habré.

So we began to investigate, and when we heard about Yahya Jammeh’s — it was actually the leader of the Jammeh2Justice coalition, a woman named Fatoumatta Sandeng, whose father was killed by Yahya Jammeh, who told us about Toufa and who — and so we got in touch with Toufah. This woman, Fatoumatta Sandeng, had also been almost in the same situation. Jammeh had called her to the palace, kept her there for a couple days. Fortunately, she was able to get away.

So, we started to — we decided that, you know, we were going to — instead of ending by looking at sexual violence, that this was something that we were going to try to look at in the very beginning. Unfortunately, you know, it was difficult. It would be difficult if no woman, unfortunately, would be willing to talk about it. And fortunately, Toufah was not only willing to talk about, but wanted to talk about it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Reed, you mentioned that there are obviously many obstacles in — you know, from Chile to Chad to the Gambia. What are the kinds of obstacles to putting together a case like this?

REED BRODY: You know, the biggest obstacle is always political will. I mean, there’s no doubt of Pinochet’s crimes. There’s no doubt of Hissène Habré’s crimes. There’s no doubt of Yahya Jammeh’s crimes. There’s no doubt of crimes in Guantánamo. There’s no doubt of crimes in Abu Ghraib. There’s no doubt of crimes in Chechnya. There’s no doubt of crimes in secret prisons. The question is mustering the political will to bring people to justice

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On whose part? So who’s required? I guess the countries where the crimes took place?

*REED BRODY: Well, whoever is in charge, political leaders. I mean, what we’ve seen in these cases is that, you know, ultimately, it’s the persistence, the courage of the victims that drive — you know, that force people to stand up. And it’s something, I have to say, the International Criminal Court has not been very good at doing, that it tends — the International Criminal Court tends to —

AMY GOODMAN: At The Hague.

REED BRODY: In The Hague. Many of its cases have failed because they haven’t involved the victims. They haven’t used the victims’ stories and the victims’ quest in order to generate political momentum.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it must be astounding for you, Toufah, to be in Canada now — you sought political refuge — and to be able to see your country going through this truth and reconciliation process, meaning the perpetrators testifying. I wanted to turn now to another Human Rights Watch video. Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International revealed a paramilitary unit, directed by the then-Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh, executed over 50 Ghanaian, Nigerian and other West African migrants in July 2005. Let’s turn to a part of the video produced by Human Rights Watch featuring our guest, Reed Brody.

REED BRODY: We recently investigated the 2005 massacre of over 50 West African migrants. These men and women, mostly from Ghana, were trying to reach Europe but ended up stranded on the Gambian coast. Jammeh’s security services, warned of a potential coup, deemed the migrants to be mercenaries, and they were arrested and brutally killed. Their bodies were dumped in wells and in bushes. Martin Kyere was the only survivor.

MARTIN KYERE: Our hands was tied in a pickup, white pickup. We have one Gambian and one Nigerian, and we are six as Ghanaians. One officer used a cutlass and cut the backbone of one Nigerian, and he was not able to survive at that time. The blood is full in pickup. So, now everybody realized that these peoples are going to kill us.

REED BRODY: Martin jumped out of the pickup and fled through the forest to safety in neighboring Senegal. Until now, nobody was able to confirm who exactly killed the migrants. Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International were able to interview 30 former government officials, including 11 who participated in the incident. We met with two people who witnessed the killings. The witnesses told us that the migrants were killed by a paramilitary death squad, the Jungulers, that took orders directly from Yahya Jammeh.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s Reed Brody narrating this report from Human Rights Watch, the human rights attorney who is leading the prosecution of the former dictator of Gambia. Reed, what happens when these remarkable people, from Toufah to Martin, who we just saw in this report, the sole survivor of this refugee boat that was massacred, testify? What happens when the perpetrators say, “I did this”? In some truth and reconciliation commissions, they get immunity for just speaking.

REED BRODY: Well, this is an important question. The Gambian truth commission has the power, when it finishes its report, to recommend for prosecution those deemed to have the greatest responsibility in the crimes. It also has the power to recommend amnesty for those people who were honest about what they had done and who were not part of committing crimes against humanity. So, we’re going to see.

Some of the people that you showed in your first hour — the Jungulers who confessed to chopping up the two Gambian Americans, the Junguler who confessed to killing the migrants — are walking around free, to the astonishment of the family members. I mean, imagine, in the case of Ya Mamie Ceesay, a wonderful, wise mother of one of the Gambian Americans, one week you hear how this man chopped up your son, and the next week you see the man walking free. Now, the minister of justice says, “Well, they’re free for the moment. The truth commission will decide whether or not they should be prosecuted.” But we’re worried, A, that they could flee the country in the meantime. And just the fact that they’re walking around is very scary, both perhaps for them and for their victims. But the decision has not been made as to whether they will be prosecuted or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Toufah, what do you want to see happen? You’re going to return to your country, the Gambia, and testify about what Jammeh did to you. What do you want to see happens to the former dictator?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: What many of the victims, especially the Jammeh2Justice campaign, wants to see. And it’s been devastating watching all these testimonies from people that actually committed the crimes. And it’s been devastating for the families — the Baba Hydaras, the Fatoumatta Sandengs, the Aishas — and just everybody who is directly or indirectly affected, looking at these stories, and the country watching it. And it’s been turned into a soap opera. It’s a sensational thing to watch. And then we all walk around and sing “Kumbaya.” It’s really not what the aim of the victims and the survivors is.

What we want to see is not only to scream truth and reconciliation, but truth, justice and reconciliation, that it is completely up to us. And for the rest of the community, it’s very scary to have to live with someone who chops up people as your neighbor. It’s not healthy for the rest of us, who are constantly thinking that we are living with all this bad and people that have committed all these crimes. So we do want to justice as we move forward. We want it to be done rightly. But the commission and the government has to set up a system or a procedure that will not only violate and disrespect the survivors and victims, but at the same time follow the rule of law.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission —

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — right? — the way they got people to admit their crimes and to testify was to say, “You will be granted immunity.” And there was this sense that to acknowledge, to have this nationwide knowledge, would cleanse the country. But many disagreed with that, as well.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Yeah, it’s very unacceptable. I mean, Gambia has done or, let’s say, did something very incredible, like taking out a dictator for 22 years without having a war or people shooting down at each other, a very peaceful transition of government. So, I think Gambians, especially with the victims that I’ve seen, are willing to also come up with another historical moment of making sure that we do not only “cleanse” the country, but that we actually see justice — not only Yahya Jammeh, but all the henchmen that do work for him. And I think Gambians are willing to be the first, smallest West African country that is willing to not only listen to stories, but to make sure that they are actually prosecuted.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what would justice look like?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Justice looks like victims saying, “OK, you’re serving the time that you deserve. You’re paying for the consequences of what you did.” Justice looks like us going down for Yahya Jammeh, having a day in court, somehow, that is transparent, that is fair and is also open to the Gambian people, and the victims are put at the center of this process.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask both of you, Human Rights Watch published its report about you — 

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — and the women who are unnamed, who charged the dictator with rape, just days after the former television host, E. Jean Carroll, accused Donald Trump of raping her in the 1990s in a dressing room in a department store, in Bergdorf Goodman.

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: At least 22 women have accused President Trump of either sexual assault or sexual misconduct. What are your thoughts coming into the United States —

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — with the president of the United States with this kind of record?

FATOUTOUFAHJALLOW: I mean, to tell you the truth, I have been — part of my inspiration really did come from the #MeToo movement and all the women that have been coming forward despite how powerful these men are.

The truth is, there is a universality when it comes to the concept of not believing women, right? With even my case. There is all these people coming forward, that, “Oh, this has been killed. Yahya Jammeh took a billion. This happened. This happened.” And everyone accepts that and believes that, even though there are narrations and explanations of things that have happened. When I come out, the first question, as all these women in the United States, is disbelieving women, is asking the questions, “Did this really happen?” And that normally is coming from the place that these women are telling their truth against very powerful men, right? If it’s some other homeless guy in the street, people do not tend to question the validity of women’s stories, but because women are coming out and telling their stories against powerful men.

And I think the United States of America and the First World country all around here, Canada and the United States, have done a tremendous job by creating platform and spaces for women to be able to tell their truth, even though they still do have consequences of being threatened and having to move. You know, we have seen Dr. Ford and all these women that have to be chastised and have to face the consequences of speaking up. But to some level, at some point, there has to be accountability. It has to mean something, not only for the women to speak their truth, but for the men to be held accountable, if the United States and this part of the world want to lead the rest of the world in finding justice for women.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Reed Brody, on that issue of Human Rights Watch coming out with a report right at that time of this woman charging the president of the United States with rape?

REED BRODY: Well, you know, I mean, the parallels are clear. I mean, I have to say that, you know, in the United States, the support system for women like that is so much greater. I mean, when I went to Gambia and interviewed women, most women who we talked to would not even answer our — you know, we tried to contact them on Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram. They wouldn’t — you know, we knew their name. They wouldn’t even talk to us. I mean, when I met with Toufah’s parents the first time — wonderful, wonderful people, and, in fact, I see that Toufah got much of her strength from her mom — the question was: Are people going to believe her? You know, if you imagine what it was for Christine Blasey Ford to come out, just it’s a hundred times more difficult for a woman in Gambia, in a country where there’s not even a word in the Wolof and Mandinka languages that translates the concept of rape.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but we are certainly going to continue to cover this story. And when you go to Gambia to testify, we’ll be reporting on that, as well. Toufah, thank you so much for being here, and attorney Reed Brody. Toufah Jallow is the Gambian feminist, anti-rape activist, the inspiration for the #MeToo movement in Gambia. “I am Toufah” was a battle cry of women taking to the streets in Gambia. Reed Brody, counsel, spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, known as the “Dictator Hunter.”

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org, where Toufah tells her own story of how she escaped her rapist in Gambia — that rapist, the dictator of Gambia, I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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