Fatou A. Jallow was interviewed and named as part of the Human Rights Watch report on former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh’s sexual assault of young women
In June 2015, when I was 18 years old, the then-dictator of my country raped me.
I had just won Gambia’s national beauty pageant and Yahya Jammeh immediately began to court me, lavishing me and my family with gifts. He had running water installed at my family’s house, gave us expensive furniture, and offered me a job as a “protocol girl” in the State House, which I turned down. He even offered to marry me. But I refused.
So Mr. Jammeh used the pretext of the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan to have me come to his palace for a Quranic recital. There, with the help of his aides, including his cousin, a woman who claimed to be my friend, he locked me in a room and told me “No woman has ever rejected me. Who do you think you are?”
His face changed; his eyes were red. “You think you can get away with it?” he asked. He then slapped me, injected me with a liquid, and raped me. A few days later, I escaped from Gambia and went to live in Canada.
Today, it is Mr. Jammeh who is in exile, in Equatorial Guinea, and I am returning to Gambia to speak out. What Yahya Jammeh did to me was a crime. I know that many other women were abused by the dictator, who had set up a system to lure women to visit him or work for him in the presidential palace. Mr. Jammeh behaved as if the women of Gambia were his property. Well, we are not, and we never were.
I come from a culture where rape is not named. We never spoke of it among my family, my community, nor in school. Even in drama class, where we portrayed all other topics, rape was not addressed. We made skits about early marriage, child pregnancy, and female genital mutilation, but we never so much as whispered about how some men force themselves onto girls and women against their will.
Growing up, I saw young girls chastised for getting pregnant, but no one questioned how it happened. I remember seeing girls tremble at the sight of an uncle and do anything to avoid taking food into his room. They were in a horrific situation they had no name for.
A Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) is now documenting the abuses committed during Mr. Jammeh’s 22 years in power. On the menu: The killing of demonstrators; the arrest and torture of journalists; enforced disappearances; the massacre of 56 migrants from Ghana, Nigeria and other countries; his phony “HIV treatment program” which forced patients to give up retroviral drugs and put themselves literally in his hands.
The TRRC will also hold hearings on sexual violence. I expect to testify before the TRRC, and I hope that other women will feel able to come forward, in closed session or in public, to tell their stories. I want them to be able to speak their truth, and take any shame they might feel, and put that shame where it belongs: on the rapists.
The Commission has Gambians glued to their televisions and radios as former Jammeh accomplices accuse him directly of ordering murders and other crimes. The TRRC has the power to recommend prosecutions and I hope that the Gambian government will request Mr. Jammeh’s extradition to stand trial. Getting him will not be easy. He has been seen partying and cavorting like a celebrity with Equatorial Guinea’s own dictator, Teodoro Obiang.
But I will not give up until Yahya Jammeh is brought to justice. I want to look him in the eyes and say before him what I am saying today. I want Mr. Jammeh to see that I, and the many other women he abused, are not broken as he intended. That we have the power that he tried to take from us.
I want to be in the same room with him again - a courtroom this time - and answer that question he asked me: “Who do you think you are?”
I am Fatou A. Jallow.