14 April 2011

Gambia News: Remembering the April 10, 2000 Students' Massacre

By Mathew K Jallow
Exactly eleven years ago today, sixteen young Gambian students' lives was 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 road 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 her breakfast of sugar-laced porridge and skimmed-milk, and she could not wait to get to school. She wanted desperately to meet her three best friends to small-talk about whatever adolescent girls talk about. The time was a just after 7.30 am. And everywhere one looked, from all directions, school children walked singly or in groups towards St. Theresa's School. Close to Westfield clinic, as one of the littlest boys ran to catch-up with his older siblings, his left hand holding up his loose short pants, an old ragged van veered off the street to avoid hitting him.
The Kanifing/Serekunda/Talinding Kunda junction teemed with young lives; boys and girls, most exhibiting exemplary character and a future full of promise. Standing on the side of the street near Paul Maroun's store where Kairaba Avenue and the Banjul/Serekunda highways are locked in an eternal embrace, Jonfolo Ceesay, Ngone Jobe and Ndungu Jallow giggled and made sounds that mimicked one of female teachers, as they waited anxiously for their friend to appear. Just when the three 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 unnoticed. Surprise, she shouted and made a gesture as if wrapping her arms around the others. The four exchanged greetings and walked to the edge of Kairaba Avenue and stood on the side walk, arms locked together, as they always did whenever they crossed a street. That morning there was not enough time for the four to spend together under the mango tree at the far end of the school yard.
As soon as they entered the school yard, they parted company and went to their separate classrooms. Before they entered the school yard, they had renewed their friendship vows in which they promised to remain friends for the rest of their lives, and not allow other girls or boys to get between them. At 8 am sharp, the school bell rang, and the school principal, William Kujabi emerged from his office, his menacing hulk crowned with a stern, but harmless face. And as if on cue, the remaining students who stood outside in the school yard bolted, scattered and ran in all directions towards their classrooms. Mr. Kujabi surveyed the school grounds to make sure that no other student remained loitering on the school grounds or around the school perimeter. 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. Only a few minutes earlier, Claesco Pierra as one of the seniors, had been motioned to join other seniors at the meeting. There was a unanimous agreement among the seniors to participate in the students' demonstration slated for later that morning. It was agreed that only the senior students will participate in the demonstration and a delegation of two were sent to seek permission for Principal Kujabi. The mildly warm day looked like any other school day. When the school bell rang at 9 am, students from the three senior classes gathered in the school yard in front of the principal's office. At exactly 9.15 am, led by the school head-boy Bola Roberts, the students, young boys and girls, exited the school yard and poured into the side-walk of Kairaba Avenue and headed south toward the Westfield junction. Already the junction was filling up with students from other area schools, and there was excitement in the air. By 9.45 am, senior students from the area schools had gathered at the tri-street convergent point Kairaba Avenue, Serekunda Road and Brikama Highway, to create a carnival atmosphere, egged on by adults proud of their country's young sons and daughters.
Five miles to the north at the Army Camp in Bakau, military personnel in riot gear were heading towards Kanifing too, even as reinforcement deployed from the Yundum and Denton Bridge military barracks sped towards the direction of the peaceful students march. It did not take long before the area was saturated with armed young military men in full riot gear. It looked as if they had come to do battle with the youngsters, rather than to control a group of unarmed teenagers, whose peaceful march had assumed a fun, almost carnival like atmosphere. But to the hundreds of students, this was no joke. Just two days earlier, one of their own, Ebrima Barry, a young student in Brikara, was murdered by the regime's thugs while in detention at the Brikama Police station. The demonstration in Kanifing was organized to protest that murder and to show solidarity with Brikama students where the young murdered Ebrima Barry attended school.
As the students continued their peaceful march, the security forces were bracing for a fight, often showing off their AK 47s in a threatening manner. Tensions were high on both sides of the divide, and there were exchanges of insults between the students and some security forces. But the least the students were expecting was what happened next; to be shot by their own security forces with live bullets. Unprovoked and in a deliberate show of brutal force, some security personnel opened fire on the crowd of peaceful, unarmed student marchers. When the machine guns fell silent, a crowd of students gathered over the body of one of the many who lay dying, a female student in St. Theresa's school uniform close to the old Cooperative Union complex. A bullet had entered the back of her head and exited from her fore-head above her right eye. She twittered once and fell silent. And efforts to revive her proved fruitless. Claesco Pierra was dead; shot by Yahya Jammeh's thugs. The beautiful young girl with so much to live for was no more.
Back in St. Theresa's School, Jonfolo Ceesay, Ngone Jobe and Ndungu Jallow, her three best friends, had no idea what had just happened. When it was all over, sixteen lifeless bodies lay bleeding profusely on the streets of Kanifing, shot by Yahya Jammeh's security force on the orders of Yahya Jammeh's and Isatou Njie-Saidy. The day April 10th 2000, has become the most tragic day in the history of The Gambia. It was the day The Gambia lost its innocence. This year, for the first time since the massacre of the students eleven years ago, the students are being recognized 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 event, which will grow bigger as more and more Gambians become aware of the significance of the day. This year, the Balangbaa Movement: the Coalition for Civil Disobedience in The Gambia in cooperation with the Coalition for Change-Gambia, are calling on Gambians everywhere to join them in commemorating the short lives they lives and the legacy of bravery they left behind. And like all the murders perpetrated on the orders of Yahya Jammeh, Isatou Njie-Saidy and on behalf of Yahya Jammeh's regime; from the brutal assassination of Ousman Koro Ceesay, to the cruel murder of Deida Hydara, and the broad daylight execution at the Royal Albert Market of Sergeant Dumbuya, to the recent brutal strangulation of Sergeant Illo Jallow and every murder and execution in between, the perpetrators of the student massacre have never been brought to face the justice system. Below is a list of the murdered students. May their souls rest in perfect peace.
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).

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