Gambia gripped by fear as leader scours country in search of witches

Thousands kidnapped, beaten and poisoned in President's brutal crackdown
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The Independent Online

A state-sponsored witch-hunt has begun in Gambia where as many as 1,000 people have been kidnapped from their villages and taken to "secret detention centres" then stripped, beaten and poisoned.

The campaign launched in the tiny West African nation is the latest manifestation of the increasingly brutal and bizarre rule of President Yahya Jammeh, who has claimed he can cure people of Aids. Now the President is thought to believe he is under attack from witches.

Witnesses and victims of the abductions told Amnesty International that the President's personal guard, along with armed police and intelligence agents have accompanied witch doctors brought in from Guinea to round up suspects. Many of those taken from their homes were elderly people who have then been held for up to five days in appalling conditions, made to drink hallucinogenic concoctions and forced to confess to black magic powers.

"At 5am, the paramilitary police armed with guns and shovels surrounded our village and threatened the villagers, saying anyone who tries to escape will be buried 6ft under," one witness who cannot be named told Amnesty. "They randomly identified over 300 men and women who were forced at gunpoint into waiting buses and ferried to the President's home town." Once there, the witness said they were stripped and forced to drink dirty water with unidentified herbs which caused diarrhoea and vomiting. Those who eventually confessed to being a witch were then beaten.

"I stayed there for five days. I experienced and witnessed such abuse and humiliation. I cannot believe that this type of treatment is taking place in Gambia. It is from the dark ages," the victim added.

The Gambia, which was once fought over by the British and French as a staging post in the slave trade, is a small sliver of land surrounded by Senegal. As a young army lieutenant, Mr Jammeh ended its post-independence experiment with democracy in a bloodless coup in 1994. Since taking control, Mr Jammeh, 43, has won three elections, all marred by widespread intimidation and arbitrary jailing of his rivals.

The increasingly paranoid and unpredictable ruler had his most prominent opponent, Halifa Sallah, imprisoned earlier this month after he wrote a newspaper article condemning the activities of the witch doctors. The President is said to believe that witchcraft was responsible for the recent death of his aunt and responded by bringing in his own witch doctors from Guinea.

The witch-hunt has so far concentrated on Foni Kansala district, an area near to President Jammeh's farm of Kanilai. But there are fears that the kidnappings may spread across the nation and hundreds of Gambians have already fled into Senegal.

The President of the smallest African mainland country caused an international stir two years ago when he invited reporters and diplomats to witness him curing Aids and asthma sufferers. Dressed in a white West African garb and plastic surgical gloves, he laid out patients in the State House and rubbed a green paste into their bodies before making them swallow a "bitter yellow drink". He insisted the cure could only work on Thursdays and required that patients immediately stop taking anti-retroviral drugs. A UN official who dared to question his Aids "cure" was thrown out of the country. Last year, the President said homosexuals should be beheaded.

Even those close to him have begun to question his sanity and many former aides have fled after falling out with him. "He often targets those close to him," said Tania Bernath, a Gambia expert with Amnesty. "He becomes paranoid that they're plotting against him. There are some questions over his mental state and he is said to be increasingly erratic."

Many African leaders, including Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade see Mr Jammeh as an embarrassment but not yet a threat to peace and stability in the region. His latest action may prompt a rethink.