Private Mafugi Sonko – Embodiment of a Gambian

He valued his dignity; learnt a trade and relied on his skills to provide for his family. His discipline and respect for authority was the reason why when he was called on to carry out a task, even though he was scheduled to be off and resting he obliged without question, without reluctance and without hesitation.  He must have thought “what is the big deal to fuss about in driving a few senior officers to a different barracks?” From his demeanor alone one can deduce that Maafu (as I believe he is fondly called) will not hesitate or shy away from any task, so he obliged but that decision will turn out to be tragically life changing and in the most unpleasant of ways.

Unbeknownst to him, Maafu drove headlong into a well-crafted scheme of betrayal to purge the army of suspected non-loyalists and his innocence was not enough to spare him the misery that sadists were about to unleash on him.

That fateful night of November 11th, 1994 a meek and generous Maafu was shoved into the middle of a scheme he knew nothing about and had no part in only to have his innocence ripped from him and made to stare atrocity in the face as he had never imagined possible. He watched in shock and dismay as men he considered brothers were helplessly tortured and killed in gruesome fashion. That night he was told he would be killed like those brothers and was made to ready himself several times only to be made to hope for life anew; again and again he was mocked with death. In those moments of uncertainty he could not stay quiet anymore he cried for mercy; “I am innocent of whatever is going on here. I was just asked to drop off some senior officers, please do not kill me.” But what good is it to call on the humane side of a sadist? They have none!

He resigned to his fate, embraced imminent death and brought out his big heart to help others facing a similar fate but worse off in that moment than him. Helping late Lt. Dot Faal under such conditions spoke only of hope; hope that the sadists would come to their senses and spare them and get Lt. Faal the needed help, so they dragged him along to uncertainty but for him and many others, relief would come only in the form of death.  The living would suffer worse fates.  Even though he is completely innocent, Maafu must have felt guilt for his helplessness – a survivor’s syndrome.  It is better to not live through certain experiences because death would offer relief from the guilt of being unable to do more to save those who perished.

9 solid years of undeserved incarceration for no cause at all.

9 years of living in darkness as to why his freedom and dignity were seized.

9 years of psychological torture that will last a lifetime.

9 years of being denied an opportunity to relay his version of events and prove his innocence.

9 years, he sat in solitary darkness; night after night wondering why?

9 years he prayed for reprieve and wondered how his family was faring.

9 years he was haunted by the visions of the battered bodies of his colleagues with no one to put a comforting arm around him.

9 years he cried alone in silence in the dungeons of mile 2.

9 long years taken from a man who would not hurt a fly; 9 YEARS!

Freedom from incarceration eventually came; but not freedom from the haunted images of November 11th, 1994. He lived his free days trying to occupy his mind with work; the company of others and laughter. He tried so hard to keep the memories of that night and the thousands of solitary nights that ensued deeply buried. Maafu is a pragmatist; he adjusted to the realities of the night of November 11 and lived through it. He adjusted to prison life and solitude and became a support system for many fellow inmates despite his traumatic experience. He emerged out of prison to come face to face with more injustice from his own relatives leading to his destitution. The state that abused him, denied him his rights and unjustly incarcerated him left him by the roadside. The institution he voluntarily chose to serve his country through refused to help or even acknowledge him. He survived and took on life and the new challenges of his new reality.

Maafu has indescribable strength! Private Mafugi Sonko; the man we will walk past on the streets and not pay him a second glance lived through hell and gives a smile to all he encounters despite his own inner pain.

He smiles through his pain and trauma, he put a smile on all of our faces as he took us back in time to relive his nightmares with him. Smiles, the company of others, work and avoiding solitude was how he tried to bury those sad memories and walked around like any ordinary man. The weight of all the pain he was silently carrying all these years finally unraveled at the commission and he broke down; we broke down with him and you’d be heartless not to have felt his pain. Those tears speak a thousand words. Words of pain, of sorrow; grief; regret; callousness; loneliness; helplessness; relief; disbelief; shame; -INJUSTICE.

It will be a while before we see tears like that, tears so heavy our nation’s conscience screams under its weight. We should all feel the weight of those tears on our collective consciences, that lump in your throat right now is testament to the weight of Maafu’s tears.

“I forgive them all; all who tortured me, all who incarcerated me; all who chained me and released my chains only to allow me to eat; I forgive them all. I forgive them all who lined me and my brothers up and promised to execute me then proceeded to execute some. I forgive them all. All who, despite my innocence made me believe my final moments were upon me several moments in one night; I forgive them all! I forgive them for we are all one; brothers and sisters unto one another. What happened to me happened because it was meant to happen; it was destiny.  We are here now, let’s all get along and forge ahead!”

That may not be as easy as Maafu wishes, but it speaks to the character he was raised to embrace; the Gambian character. If not for the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) Maafu would be one of those who fell by the wayside and left behind by the system. If Maafu knew people in high places, he would not have suffered the fate he suffered even if he was guilty, but he is like the majority of our compatriots who are invisible to our decision makers, and frankly invisible to a lot of us. Just another poor man!

Maafu has honored us all by being the face of what failure and abandonment looks like. Each time one feels inclined to excuse Yaya Jammeh’s tyranny, remember Maafu’s face and recall his story. Maafu survived his ordeals to serve a purpose and that purpose is to deliver his message and present us with another opportunity to do better as a nation. We should strive to do better, we can do better!


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