President Yahya Jammeh had discovered a remedy for AIDS. That was the information that reached Ousman Sowe, the pinnacle of a Gambian AIDS help community, at some point in 2007. He was overjoyed.
“We all went with the hope that we were going to take a drop of some wonderful medication and be cured,” Sowe, 64, a tall man with greying hair, advised the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an workplace outdoors Gambia’s rundown seaside capital.
But he was not allowed to go dwelling after displaying up on the state home that day. Gambia’s ex-president Jammeh pressured him to drink natural concoctions morning and night time for seven months till he was declared cured – however in actuality, close to dying.
Jammeh, whose 22-year rule over the tiny West African nation was marked by accusations of human rights abuses, fled into exile final 12 months after shedding an election.
Now survivors of Jammeh’s bogus AIDS remedy are doing what as soon as appeared unattainable – talking out about their struggling and pursuing justice in opposition to the person who endangered their lives.
An estimated 9,000 Gambians, most with HIV, handed via Jammeh’s remedy packages and have been pressured to surrender standard drugs in favor of his do-it-yourself cures, stated AIDS-Free World, a U.S.-based charity working with survivors.
The faux AIDS remedy not solely had grave well being penalties for the sufferers, a few of whom died, however hindered actual HIV/AIDS prevention efforts within the nation, UNAIDS stated.
“There was sort of a blackout of information on HIV, because everything was related to the president’s treatment,” stated the U.N. company’s nation director Sirra Ndow.
“There was the perception that if there was a cure, you didn’t need support.”
Although HIV dying charges are falling and remedy charges rising globally, Gambia is trailing.
Its an infection charge – of about two p.c – is way decrease than many African nations. But solely 30 p.c of Gambians with HIV have been on antiretroviral medication (ARVs) in 2016, whereas the goal is 90 p.c by 2020, based on UNAIDS.
THE GLASS HOUSE
Sowe and two different outspoken survivors, Fatou Jatta and Lamin Ceesay, are working with legal professionals and activists to assemble proof in opposition to Jammeh.
But all three are of their 50s or 60s and combating poor well being, discrimination and poverty.
“We believe they should be compensated, but time is really against us,” stated Agasha Tabaro, a authorized fellow with AIDS-Free World. “This is a health issue, and it’s urgent.”
The sufferers by no means knew what Jammeh was feeding them.
Sometimes it got here in a bottle, generally powdered, generally combined with canned milk or honey. If they sipped the concoctions, he would yell, forcing them to drink it unexpectedly, they stated.
“I would vomit every time,” stated Jatta, 51, a social employee who spent 9 months in this system after publicly disclosing that she had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Every day, Jammeh’s sufferers have been taken to a glass constructing within the state home advanced the place the president administered the remedy, they stated. They weren’t allowed to contact their households, or allowed to choose out.
Sometimes the president would rub ointments on their our bodies. The classes have been filmed and broadcast on state tv.
“The psychological effect on me was such that after the program I felt it very difficult to integrate again into society,” stated Sowe.
Severely weakened by Jammeh’s remedy, Sowe and Ceesay went again on ARVs after Jammeh discharged them, and Jatta began taking them. Ceesay’s spouse, additionally in this system, died.
After Jammeh’s remedy program, survivors misplaced their jobs and struggled to feed their households, they stated. They couldn’t escape the truth that their faces had been broadcast on TV.
“I think their dignity needs to be restored,” stated Ndow.
Ceesay, who was the primary man in Gambia to overtly declare his standing, stated he has been pressured to maneuver homes often as a result of landlords evict him once they discover out he has HIV.
“I want my own home for my family,” he stated. “That’s what I‘m struggling with now.”
FIGHT FOR JUSTICE
The survivors know that bringing Jammeh to justice could also be a far-flung hope. He fled to Equatorial Guinea and it’s unclear whether or not President Teodoro Obiang would extradite him.
A fact and reconciliation fee is anticipated to start out work in Gambia later this 12 months.
“It’s not going to be easy to get Jammeh to trial, but it can certainly be done,” stated Reed Brody, a U.S. lawyer steering the marketing campaign for victims of alleged rights abuses below Jammeh.
“As the victims tell their stories and more and more information comes out, the demand for justice could become overwhelming,” he stated.
Brody, nicknamed the “dictator hunter”, helped victims of Chad’s Hissene Habre jail their former president for all times final 12 months for battle crimes and crimes in opposition to humanity.
But it was a 17-year battle.
“Even if the compensation comes when we are not here, it will be for our children,” Jatta stated.
*Reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation