By Yankuba Jallow
Assan Suwareh, a survivor of the April 2000 students’ demonstration has narrated his ordeal before the TRRC on Wednesday, 21st August 2019.
Suwareh, who was 17 in April 2000, said he was in grade 10 at Banjul Technical High School. He said on 10th April, he joined a school bus with the intention of going to school to do his examination, but they were stopped at the Gambia Technical Training Institute (GTTI) by students who asked them to disembark from the vehicle and join them in the peaceful demonstration. He told the TRRC that he was aware of a planned protest by the Gambia Students Union (GAMSU), but he never knew it was going to hold on April 10. He said some students were stopping school buses and asking students to come down and join them in a peaceful demonstration. He said there were about 500 students at the GTTI who all headed to Westfield unarmed. He said the protest was in demand for justice for two of their colleagues; Binta Manneh and Ebrima Barry.
On their way to Westfield, the 36 – year – old witness said they passed a group of unarmed paramilitary personnel who asked them not to obstruct the traffic.
“We were marching peacefully and orderly towards Westfield calling for justice for Ebrima Barry and Binta Manneh,” Suwareh said, adding that the protesters were only students.
. He said when they passed this group of paramilitary personnel, they met another group ahead, but this group was armed and they were about 30 men.
He said the armed paramilitary personnel were asking them to return, but the students continued with the protest until they came closer to the security who assaulted them and released tear gas. He said in retaliation, the students also threw stones to the paramilitary.
“Some of us were stoning the paramilitary,” Suwareh stated, indicating that the stoning was in retaliation to the assault by the paramilitary who were using their batons to beat the protesting students.
He said the then Minister of Interior, Ousman Badjie, came and talked to the students which brought calm. He said they went with the ex-Minister to GTTI and he discussed with the student leaders.
“I saw Mr. Ousman Badjie gesturing for the security officers (paramilitary) to attack the students” the witness said, adding that this was when the students were already in the GTTI Campus.
He said Badjie was frustrated with the reaction of the five student leaders who he was talking with and therefore, gestured to the security personnel to assault the students inside the campus. He said after Badjie made the gesture, the paramilitary personnel went inside the school campus and the students ran for safety.
“The paramilitary personnel were attacking the students. They were having their batons that they used them in beating the students. I saw them (the paramilitary) beating students. I saw them assaulting the students. I could hear the cries of both male and female students because I had already entered a classroom with some other students, and we locked the door,” he said.
He told the TRRC a nearby classroom was invaded by these security personnel who were beating the students and from the classroom he was, he could vividly hear the cries of the students. He said the invasion of GTTI by the paramilitary to lasted for about 25 to 30 minutes after which they left. He said after the paramilitary personnel left, the students came out from where they were hiding and each ran for safety.
He told the TRRC on his way, he went together with some students but they tried as much as they could to avoid the highway with the notion that the security agents were standing on the highway. He said at Ice-Man Junction, they saw a group of students demonstrating at the Mobile Police Headquarters (also the paramilitary headquarters) and they joined them. He added the moment they joined their colleagues coincided with the release of tear gas by the police. He said he ran and headed towards the Red Cross headquarters, but he met another group of students running from Westfield. He added that one of them asked him not to go to Westfield because the paramilitary personnel were there.
“I turned and I was also running. I was running and looking back. I saw one student running who was shot on his hand and he was using his other hand to hold the other hand. I was also shot on my stomach,” the witness said.
He said: “there came a time when I struggled to breathe and I almost fell. So, I tried to run but I couldn’t. I almost collapsed. I took a few steps and then I fell down,” he said.
He told the Commission that he was picked by a private car and evacuated to the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH). He said in that vehicle, he met two other students who sustained gunshot wounds.
He said he was admitted at Intensive Care Unit and later to theatre where the bullet was removed from his stomach through surgery. He said although the surgery saved his life, he sustained infection because his internal organs such as his duodenum was seriously affected which warranted the doctors to fix a pipe through his stomach to extract fluid.
“I was in pain throughout,” the witness said while crying.
He said the bullet damaged his right kidney and the gall bladder, adding that the doctor performed a second operation on him and the duodenum was fixed.
He said he was taken to Egypt together with two of the student victims by the former government for overseas treatment. He said the government only paid for their one-month treatment whereas the remaining two months were paid by Gambians in the Diaspora. He indicated that in Egypt, he was able to walk and he responded to treatment. He said they struggled to come back to the Gambia after they were discharged from the hospital because of financial constraints.
He is currently an industrial technician living in the United States of America.