Following a successful virtual training on the Use of Forensic Sciences in the Search for the Missing conducted on 20th October 2022, The African Network against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances, ANEKED Gambia Chapter, in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice and in partnership with two members from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and the University of Chicago Law School Global Human Rights Clinic (EAAF-GHRC), last week concluded a four-day assessment mission in The Gambia which took place from 13th to 16th June 2023.
The mission was set against the need for greater sensitization, awareness, and training relating to the proper forensic investigation of human rights violations, to ensure evidence preservation, the possibility for scientific identification and return of remains to families, as well as the determination of cause, manner, and circumstances of death in situations relating to mass graves.
It may be recalled that in April 2019, the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission, (TRRC), announced that the remains of seven persons, believed to be soldiers summarily executed and buried in November 1994 at the Yundum Army Barracks in a mass grave were exhumed. The remains of these persons have been in storage at the morgue at the Edward Francis Small Teach Hospital, (EFSTH) since then and have not been identified, leaving loved ones distraught and in a perpetual state of trauma.
During the mission, the team undertook:
1. Bilateral meetings with key stakeholders to discuss among other things, expertise and logistical requirements for a proper forensic investigation, including security challenges and operational needs.
2. Forensic science information-sharing and education workshop which provided basic information about the process and technical expertise involved in forensic investigations and basic training on DNA analysis and antemortem data collection.
3. An assessment of the feasibility of conducting forensic investigations to assess the cost and expertise needed to identify and conduct a full analysis of the remains recovered from Yundum Barracks in April 2019 by the TRRC, and the possibility for further exhumations or investigations should they be required.
The mission engaged with a broad range of actors relevant to possible forensic investigations, including family members of the victims of the November 11th, 1994 victims, State prosecutors, lawyers, doctors, the Gambia Police Force, local forensic experts, the University of The Gambia professors, and lecturers to identify capacity needs and gaps not only in relation to forensic investigations of human rights violations but also in terms of building sustainable expertise for day-to-day forensic investigation needs of the country.
“We want to bury them in our Islamic way, but we cannot do that if they are not identified.” M. Sillah, brother of Cadet Amadou Sillah, one of the November 11th, 1994 victims.
“Capacity is one of our biggest challenges”, said Commissioner Amie Nyassi, Gambia Police Force.
A key concern identified during the assessment mission was the need to urgently conduct antemortem interviews and take DNA samples from the close relatives of the November 111994 victims, many of whom are elderly. Therefore, following this mission, ANEKED, together with family members of the November 11th, 1994 victims and the competent State authorities will begin discussions on a DNA sample and antemortem data collection exercise. This will greatly increase the possibility of identification of the remains of those exhumed, and the possibility for families to have closure and dignified burials.
It is also hoped that the outcome of the mission will close the capacity gaps of the relevant actors in the search and identification of the missing as well as inform strategies that will be used to kick-start the search and identification of the remaining scores of victims of human rights violations identified by the TRRC that are still missing.