Five years ago, the president of Gambia crowned 18-year-old Fatou Jallow the winner of the nation’s top beauty pageant with a lecture to her and other contestants: Do not rush to marry, he said, but use the pageant’s scholarship prize to fulfill your dreams.
But the president, Yahya Jammeh, soon began summoning the pageant winner to Gambia’s Statehouse, and eventually asked her to marry him. She said no.
“I thought it was a joke,’’ Ms. Jallow said. “I was very naïve. I didn’t know how brutal he was.”
When he summoned her yet again, for what she thought was a Ramadan event, she said he raped her.
“Reality hit me that this is my new identity,’’ she said. “I’m just this girl the president will call and pick up and rape. Everything I wanted to be, every potential and reason why I even went into this competition, all of that was shoved into the dumpster.”
During his 22 years in office, Mr. Jammeh ruled by terrorizing the tiny West African nation of two million. People he deemed enemies were tortured and killed. Protesters and journalists were jailed and beaten, many never to be heard from again. His death squad was accused of gunning down dozens of migrants trying to sail to Europe, according to a survivor of the massacre. He subjected AIDS patients to what he said was an experimental miracle cure — an herbal body rub and a banana. Some died.
Mr. Jammeh, 54, has never been called to account for any of it. West African leaders allowed him to flee to Equatorial Guinea in 2017 after he lost an election, the results of which he had refused to accept for six weeks. He took with him two Rolls-Royces and a Mercedes-Benz, and has turned up on social media being feted with a birthday cake and sipping champagne.
Now human rights advocates are collecting firsthand accounts of abuses so that he can be brought to trial. Ms. Jallow, known in Gambia as “Toufah,” shared her story in an interview. She is the first to publicly accuse the president of sexual assault, just as Gambia is in the process of reckoning with the terrible legacy of the Jammeh regime.
“This is one layer of atrocities in many,” said Reed Brody, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch who is leading a push for criminal prosecution of Mr. Jammeh, as he did for the Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, who was convicted in 2016 of crimes against humanity. “The bigger picture is, is this guy going to get away with this, or can they hold him to account for all the bad things he did?”
Gambia’s current President, Adama Barrow, has set up a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission to create a record of atrocities. Those testifying have included government soldiers accused of beatings and murders, as well as victims of abuse.
“At the end we hope to nurture national reconciliation and healing,” said Baba Galleh Jallow, the commission’s executive secretary and no relation to Ms. Jallow, “and to ensure that never again shall we have dictatorship and gross human rights violations in this country.”
Mr. Jammeh did not respond to efforts to reach him through government officials in Equatorial Guinea or supporters in Gambia, where he still has a following. One refused to solicit his response to the allegations, saying it would be “the worst form of disrespect” to put such a question to “a figure like him.”
Gambia’s reconciliation process has put a special focus on women who endured beatings or sexual violence by Mr. Jammeh’s security officers, or who were impoverished after their husbands were locked up. Last year a series of women-only listening circles brought victims together to share privately their traumatic experiences and encourage them to speak out.
Ms. Jallow, now 23, received asylum in Canada in 2015, and she is scheduled to testify before the commission during hearings on sexual violence later this year.
“Part of what he did was to break me and shut me down,” Ms. Jallow said in an interview. “I want him to hear me loud and clear. He can’t bury it.”
Five years ago, when Mr. Jammeh first summoned Ms. Jallow to the presidential palace, she was a teen and unaware of the scale of the accusations against the president.
“In order to know information like that, you had to be connected to the internet,’’ she said. “I didn’t even have a phone for most of my high school years. I was not very politically savvy as a teenager.”
Mr. Jammeh had told her he wanted to talk about her beauty pageant project — a drama program for students on eliminating poverty. Then he offered her a job as one of his protocol officers, who performed secretarial work at the statehouse. She was only 18, she told him, and did not feel qualified to work in a president’s office.
Later, reports emerged in the Gambian diaspora media that Mr. Jammeh had been using his “protocol girls” for sexual favors.
Advocates with Human Rights Watch and Trial International, a group that supports crime victims, took testimony from two former protocol officers who said that sex with the president had been part of the job. One woman, who did not want to be identified because she is afraid of retribution from Mr. Jammeh’s supporters, said in her testimony that when she was 23, she was given cash and gifts for having sex with him, and that he told her that if she refused he would cut off the financial support he was giving her family.
One former government official who was close to Mr. Jammeh said in an interview that several women working in the protocol office had complained to him that the president had touched them inappropriately or demanded sex. He said that in 2015 he told Mr. Jammeh to stop, and that Mr. Jammeh threatened his life and sent security officers to his house. He also said that he had seen Ms. Jallow at the statehouse at night.
The official, who asked not to be named publicly because he still fears for his life, fled the country.
Ms. Jallow said that after her first encounter with the president, he arranged for the national water company to install plumbing in her family’s house, which did not have running water. New furniture arrived. Sick relatives were shuttled to doctors.
The president summoned her for more meetings at the statehouse. There was speculation in the media that she was “dating” Mr. Jammeh, who was married.
During another meeting at Gambia’s statehouse, she said, as she and the president reviewed the budget for her project, Mr. Jammeh asked her to marry him. She said she explained that she wanted to study before marriage.
“He told me to think about it, that probably I didn’t understand what this means and needed time to process it,” she said.
Ms. Jallow was soon summoned to the presidential palace for what she thought was a beauty pageant event with other contestants to help kick off Ramadan. She was told to wear her crown. She put on a traditional Muslim gown with a head scarf and got into the car that was sent for her.
When they arrived, the driver passed the garden where the Ramadan program was getting underway, she said. He dropped her off at the president’s residence, where she was told to wait as a security guard took her phone and bag.
A few minutes later Mr. Jammeh arrived, dressed in baggy slacks and a T-shirt, the clothing men wear under traditional robes.
“My guts literally fell down,” to see him in his undergarments, Ms. Jallow said.
She said that he greeted her sharply, saying, “You know a woman has never rejected me.”
He took her by the hand and led her into an adjacent room, which had a bed in it, she said. He shoved her into a chair, she said, and began to lecture her about how disrespectful she was. He started ripping off her abaya. She began crying.
He lifted the gown and pulled a syringe from his pocket and injected her arm, Ms. Jallow said. He was sweaty, she remembers, and he pushed her to her knees and rubbed his genitals in her face.
She said the president then pushed her facedown onto the bed and sodomized her, and she blacked out. When she awoke, she said she found her leggings on the floor and Mr. Jammeh sitting in a chair in the corner.
“I literally stumbled out of there,” she said, and into the same car that had brought her.
Ms. Jallow said she was too scared to tell her parents, or anyone, what had happened.
About five days later, Ms. Jallow said, she put on a veil — only her eyes were showing — and took money from her mother to go to the market to buy groceries. Instead, she fled across the border into Senegal and on to Dakar, the capital.
With help from a relative in England, Ms. Jallow contacted aid organizations in Dakar. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there would not confirm details, but said Ms. Jallow was immediately referred to seek asylum and resettlement in Canada.
Ms. Jallow said she knows that telling her story publicly could bring shame to her and her family. It had kept her from speaking out for years. She only recently told her mother what happened to her.
“Mr. Jammeh needs to pay for what he did in his lifetime sooner or later,” said Ms. Jallow’s mother, Awa Saho.
Ms. Jallow is in therapy. She has studied at a university to become a social worker, inspired by those who helped her in Canada. To pay for her education, she is working as a customer care agent for a phone company in Toronto. She volunteers at a women’s shelter once a month.
“I’m not afraid to speak,” she said. “In the end the silence is as uncomfortable and more damaging than the consequences of speaking.”
New York Times