jammehBy Mathew K Jallow

Exactly fourteen years ago this week, sixteen young Gambian students’ lives were cut short by the crackle of machine-gun-fire. The morning began uneventfully as citizens went about their normal business. In down-town Serekunda, the hustle and bustle that gave notoriety to the Gambia’s largest metropolis lived up to its image of confusion and disorder. Two miles to the east of Serekunda, where the Kairaba Avenue, the Birkama Highway and the Serekunda/Banjul speedway converge, and the spectacular display of human activity spoke loudly of hope but also of subdued desperation, no one could predict the tragedy that was about to happen. That morning of April 10th 2000, when Claesco Pierra woke up in her London Corner home, she was bubbly and full of life. She had just finished eating breakfast of porridge and sugar laced-skimmed-milk, and could not wait to get to school. She longed to meet her four best friends and do what they do best; small-talk about their teachers and whatever else adolescent girls talk about. The time was 7.30 am and everywhere one looked, in all directions, school children walked singly or in groups towards St. Theresa’s School. Close to Westfield clinic, as a little boy with a running nose ran to catch-up with his older siblings, his left hand tightly clutching his loose, grimy shorts, a ragged white Toyota van suddenly veered off the street to avoid hitting him.

Around 9am, the Kanifing/Serekunda/Talinding Kunda junction was teeming with young lives as boys and girls walking gingerly towards school, with a future so full of promise ahead of them. Standing on the edge of the street near the former Paul Maroun’s store where the Kairaba Avenue and the Banjul/Serekunda highways intersect in an eternal embrace, Jonfolo Ceesay, Ngone Jobe, Elizabeth Jatta and Ndungu Jallow giggled and made sounds that mockingly mimicked one of their female teachers as they anxiously waited for their friend to appear. As the four girl-friends turned to look at a group of boys their age on the other side of Kairaba Avenue close to St. Theresa’s Church, their friend Claesco Pierra sneaked up on them. Surprise, she shouted as she wrapped her arms around her four friends. The five exchanged greetings and walked towards school and stood for a moment on the side-walk with arms locked together as they always did whenever they crossed a street. On that morning there was not enough time for the five to spend together under the usual mango tree at the far end of the school yard. As soon as the five friends entered the school yard they parted company and went each to their separate classrooms. But prior to entering the school yard, they once again renewed their friendship vows, and they promised to remain friends for the rest of their lives. They vowed to never allow other girls or boys to get in between them and ruin their friendship.

At 8 am sharp, the school bell rang as school principal; William Kujabi emerged from his office, his menacing hulk crowned with a stern, but harmless face. As if on cue, the remaining students who stood outside in the school yard bolted and ran helter-skelter in all directions towards their classrooms. Mr. Kujabi surveyed the school grounds one more time to make sure no student remained loitering on the school grounds and around the school perimeter fence. Meanwhile, in a secluded block of classrooms facing away from the rest of the school, the senior students were meeting to discuss the events of the day. A few minutes earlier, Claesco Pierra, one of the school seniors had been motioned to join other seniors at the meeting. There was a unanimous agreement among the gathered students to actively participate in the students’ demonstration against the death of Ebrima Barry in police custody and the rape of a fifteen year old girl slated for later that morning. It was agreed that only the senior students will be permitted to participate in the morning’s demonstration along the Brikama/Banjul highway. The school head boy, Bola Roberts, went to seek permission for Principal Kujabi. The mildly warm day looked like every other school day. When the school bell rang at exactly the 9 am hour, students from the three senior classes gathered in the school yard in front of the principal’s office.

 At 9.15 am, led by the school head-boy, Bola Roberts, the students, all young boys and girls, exited the school yard and poured into the Kairaba Avenue side-walk and turned south towards the Westfield junction. Already, the perennially busy junction was filling up beyond capacity with students from other area schools. There was excitement in the air. Senior students from all the area schools gathered at the tri-street convergent point to create a carnival fest atmosphere, egged on by admiring adults proud of their country’s young sons and daughters. Five miles to the north, at the Bakau Army Camp, unbeknown to the gathering mass of students, military personnel in riot gears were speeding towards the Kanifing junction too, even as more reinforcements deployed from Yundum and Denton Bridge military barracks also sped towards the direction of the peaceful students march. Before long, the area was saturated with armed military men in riot gears. It looked as though they had come ready to do battle with the defenseless students rather than to control the gathering of unarmed students, whose peaceful march had assumed a fun, almost carnival like atmosphere. But even with the festive mood of the protest, to the hundreds of gathered students, the protest was no joke. The murder of Ebrima Barry and the rape of a young student by the regime’s thugs was no laughing matter.

 

As students continued their peaceful march, the security forces were bracing for a fight, threateningly showing off their AK 47 machine guns. Soon tensions were high on both sides of the divide. Exchanges of insults between the protesting students and some security forces intensified, yet despite that, the least the students expected was what happened next. Unprovoked and in a deliberate show of brute force, some security personnel opened fire on the crowd of peaceful, unarmed students. When the crackly of machine guns’ fire finally fell silent after five minutes of frightening machine gun fire, small groups of students hovered over the bodies of the dead and dying. It was utter mayhem and pandemonium. One of the students, who lay dying, was a beautiful female student in St. Theresa’s school uniform. She lay sprawled on the ground close to the old Cooperative Union complex where she stumbled and fell trying to escape. A bullet entered the back of her head and exited from her fore-head above her right eye. She twittered violently one more time and fell silent. Claesco Pierra was dead. The beautiful young girl with so much to live for was no more. Back at St. Theresa’s School, Jonfolo Ceesay, Ngone Jobe, Elizabeth Jatta and Ndungu Jallow, her four best friends, had no idea what had just happened. When it was over, sixteen lifeless bodies lay dead or bleeding profusely on the streets of Kanifing.

 

On that day so long ago, April 10th, 2000, became the most tragic day in Gambia’s history. It was the day Gambia lost its innocence. This year, like previous years, the innocent students massacred fourteen years ago are remembered and honored as martyrs of freedom by Gambians at home and abroad. The mourning of their deaths and the celebration of their short lives will become an annual ritual that will grow bigger as more and more Gambians become aware of the significance of this day of notoriety. This year, Gambians and Gambians civil society organizations around the world are calling everyone to join in commemorating the freedom they stood for, and celebrate the short lives they lived.  For their legacy of bravery will forever be etched in stone and inscribed on the mural of Gambian history. Like all the murders perpetrated on the orders of Yahya Jammeh and Isatou Njie-Saidy; from the assassination of Ousman Koro Ceesay, the cruel murder of Deida Hydara, the broad daylight shooting death, at the Royal Albert Market, of Sergeant Dumbuya, the strangulation of Sergeant Illo Jallow, the executions of the nine Mile 2 Prisoners, and every murder and execution in between, the perpetrators of the student massacre have never been brought to face justice. As the murdered innocent students are remembered, Gambians once again send a message to Yahya Jammeh and his regime; the spirits of Gambia’s dead will never die from the consciousness of the people. For, in our heart they reside until their troubled souls see the justice.

 

1. Reginald Carroll

2. Karamo Barrow

3. Lamin Bojang

4. Ousman Sabally

5. Sainey Nyabally

6. Ousman Sembene

7. Bakary Njie

8. Claesco Pierra

9. Momodou Lamin Njie

10. Ebrima Barry

11. Wuyea Foday Mansareh

12. Bamba Jobarteh

13. Momodou Lamin Chune

14. Abdoulie Sanyang

15. Babucarr Badjie

16. Omar Barrow (journalist & Red Cross volunteer)

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this section are the author's own and do not represent the editorial policy of Kairo News. Kairo News will trash any comment that inflames tribal, racial or religious hatred.

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