Juka Ceesay hasn't seen or heard from her brother Alhagie in more than two years.
Alhagie Ceesay, 39, and his childhood friend Ebou Jobe, 41, both American citizens, traveled to their native country of Gambia in May of 2013. The pair expected to stay for a few months to begin work on a new cashew business. Alhagie hoped one day to move to Gambia permanently with his wife and two children and eventually build a house in the part of the country where he was born — a vacation spot nicknamed the "smiling coast" that is known for beautiful beaches visited by thousands of foreign tourists every year.
But the childhood friends never made it back to the US. A few weeks after they arrived in Gambia, on June 21, 2013, the pair went missing. Based on witness accounts from people who were with them the night they disappeared, the men spent the night out near the beach just outside of Gambia's capital, Banjul. On their drive home, they were allegedly pulled over by members of the Junguler, a feared paramilitary force loyal to President Yahya Jammeh. The men were pulled out of their car, handcuffed, and then taken away from the scene — something Gambians call being "picked up."
Juka, who lives in Los Angeles, first became aware of her brother's disappearance when reports of his arrest surfaced in Gambian media. Their mother was living in Banjul at the time and paid a visit to Alhagie and Ebou's apartment, which looked as though it had been ransacked. The office they were renting was in a similar state of disarray.
Juka and her mother contacted the police, but they said they didn't have any information about Alhagie. The family pursued other official channels, but to no avail. Because Gambia is essentially an autocratic security state run by President Jammeh, the only information Juka was receiving about her brother's whereabouts came from unofficial sources and dissident channels. The first concrete information they received was from an alleged witness, who said that Alhagie had been picked up by Gambia's feared National Intelligence Agency, or NIA. Others sources with connections in the government seemed to confirm this witness's story.
"We didn't want to believe it…. it didn't add up, it didn't make sense," Juka said in an interview with VICE News.
It's not unusual for the NIA to arrest Gambians and subsequently deny that they are detaining them, according to former information minister Amadou Scattred Janneh. Janneh says President Jammeh has a variety of security agencies that report directly to him and who do not wear uniforms. When they show up to make an arrest, they arrive in unmarked vehicles with heavily tinted windows, and identify themselves as state security.
"You disappear and then family members may not know where you're taken," he said, explaining that police typically feign ignorance about such incidents. "They identify themselves when picking you up and then deny having you."
Over the last two decades, there have been dozens of cases of citizens arrested and disappeared without any official acknowledgement for months and even years — well beyond the country's own 72-hour legal limit for being detained without charges. In a recent report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the organization highlights "countless" cases where people were arbitrarily detained, arrested, and tortured by the NIA.
HRW says at least 43 people have allegedly disappeared since President Jammeh took power in 1994, according to the organization.
Felicity Thompson, a West Africa researcher for HRW and author of the report, called the situation in Gambia devastating, saying "the population lives in a climate of fear in which injustice prevails and accountability for abuses is beyond reach."
"The government needs to urgently turn things around by respecting basic rights and prosecuting those who violate them."
Janneh knows about the secret government detentions from experience. The former minister was arrested in June, 2011 for printing and distributing T-Shirts from an NGO called "Coalition for Change" with the slogan, "End to Dictatorship Now."
Janneh's family did not know where he was for eight days after he disappeared, and the government did not acknowledge that they had detained him. The dual US-Gambian citizen says he was kept at a makeshift detention center in an abandoned warehouse near the airport during this time, unable to contact his family, an attorney, or the US Embassy. After heavy pressure from his family and the US government, the police acknowledged Janneh's detention and he was moved to an official prison.
Janneh was put on trial at the beginning of 2012 and convicted of treason and conspiracy, and he was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. A campaign by Jesse Jackson and groups like Amnesty International eventually helped win Janneh's release.
Beyond the telltale signs of security forces, like unmarked vehicles and late-night pickups, Janneh explained that when someone disappears, it is highly unlikely the incident was a result of a criminal kidnapping.
"No, no kidnapping never," he said with a laugh. "There has never been in the country's history where somebody was kidnapped and it turns out to be someone other than the state involved."
"If they're just being kidnapped, how come it's only critics of the regime being kidnapped and why hasn't there been any investigation by the government?" he asked.
Alhagie's family, for example, believes he may have been involved in opposition activities, and that he may have brought information from expatriate activists to disseminate in Gambia.
Gambia was once lauded as a success story of post-colonial African democracy, but Jammeh and his regime began ramping up tactics of repression almost immediately after he ousted a democratically-elected president in 1994 at age 29. Former newspaper reporter Pasamba Jow classifies himself as one of the dictator's first critics, saying he was initially skeptical because he didn't like the idea of someone rising to power through a military coup.
"People were not paying attention [at first], but his rhetoric [didn't] sit well with me," Jow explained, saying Jammeh's henchmen carried out violence and torture. Jow fled the country for the US before Jammeh's first official election in 1996.
As Jow sees it, the massacre of 14 students and a journalist by security forces during university protests in 2000 marked the beginning of the current trend in human rights abuses that persists in Gambia 15 years later. "All of a sudden that was when everything morphed into what it was today," he said.
Jammeh, who is 49, has attracted international attention by claiming he can cure diseases like HIV-AIDS (but only on Thursdays), and that he will slit the throats of gay men.
On occasion, Jammeh has executed prisoners without warning. His government has also cracked down on news organizations, and last year the country's lawmakers passed an anti-LGBT bill that made homosexual acts punishable by life in prison.
Gambia's detention facilities have earned a reputation for deplorable conditions. The country's largest is Mile 2 prison, the home base of the NIA and home to more than 1,000 prisoners. Gambians cite brutal beatings and electrocutions while in detention, according to Amnesty International. Solitary confinement is the norm and family visits are limited to 30 minutes every three months, Janneh said.
While Mile 2 can be seen on Google Maps and the other main prisons allow visitors, it can be very hard to locate someone held in one of Gambia's makeshift detention centers, according to Janneh. In its report, HRW says there are detention centers scattered throughout the country, even in abandoned buildings in Jammeh's hometown.
"Because Jammeh has a lot of makeshift detention centers across the country it's very hard to locate an individual who disappeared. I know this from experience," Janneh said. "And many cases people who are disappeared end of up not being heard from anymore."
Not knowing who might turn you in or who around you could be an informant has helped create an environment of immense fear in Gambian society. In a report on his visit to the country in 2014, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez observed evidence of human rights violations and torture, but he also highlighted the paranoia that seems to pervade the population.
"The special rapporteur observed a layer of fear that was visible on the faces and in the voices of many he met from civil society," Mendez's May 2015 report says.
Even those in the diaspora are affected: Jow explained that Gambians living in the US, for example, fear that speaking out could impact family members still residing in the country or their ability to visit.
"Fear has been exported outside of the Gambia," Jow said.
Even as Juka Ceesay continues to push for details about her brother Alhagie's disappearance, she worries that her statements could make her brother's life in prison even harder. But for the time being at least, she continues to seek information until she learns the truth.
Whether it's getting information on Jammeh's latest political moves or trying to track down a missing relative, members of the diaspora rely on their own informants and sources still residing in the country. Despite the secrecy, Janneh says it's possible to glean information about what's happening in the state security detention system from sources ranging from people who have a friend or family member working in the NIA, to a prison guard who has offered help for small sums of money.
"It's a very close knit society and information gets out," Janneh explained. "Just like you have informants who go say every little thing you say about the president, we also have people who trust us."
Even in the case of a two-year long disappearance, information trickles out. Most of the details Juka gets about her brother come from individuals claiming to have witnessed the arrest or events leading up to it, while others say they have connections within the NIA.
The Gambian government has never commented on nor provided details about Alhagie and Ebou, but Juka believes a government informant likely aided in her brother's disappearance. According to Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer with RFK Human Rights, any sort of criticism can provoke Jammeh's wrath.
"Jammeh's regime also has an established and vile history of killing and disappearing anyone suspected of being a potential critic of his iron-fisted rule," Smith said. "So in that sense, it's not surprising that both Alhagie and Ebou remain missing, despite frequent appeals of help from their family and offers of assistance from the US government."
The US Department of State has worked with Alhagie and Ebou's families since the initial disappearance two years ago. Juka regularly communicates information she receives to state department officials who handle cases of Americans missing abroad. The US government has also offered resources to help Gambia investigate the case. According to Juka, however, most of the information she has learned has come from her own sources, not from US officials.
"As a family for someone missing outside the US, we're giving them the information instead of them giving us the information," Juka said of her experience with the state department.
That lack of information, however, has a lot to do with the US Privacy Act. As a US State Department spokesperson explained, the law bars officials from giving out any information related to a US citizen's whereabouts unless that individual has given permission. These restrictions apply to everyone from journalists to family members.
A State Department official told VICE News on condition of anonymity that the privacy act can present a challenge, but stressed that Alhagie and Ebou's disappearance was of high importance and that senior state department officials have raised the issue on multiple occasions with Gambian authorities. While unable to provide specifics, the official said that when a case like this emerges, US officials go through procedures like trying to get access to hospitals and jails, while also working closely with local law enforcement.
Dozens of Gambian political prisoners have been released in recent months, but Juka has yet to hear any word from Gambia or the US State Department about Alhagie and Ebou. The stress of wondering where her brother is and campaigning on his behalf has taken a toll.
"Even to say I know my sibling has passed away, [at least] there's a process you can grieve," Juka said. "I feel like I don't have a life, I haven't had a life for two years. There's no life in me and I'm just tired."
Most recently, reports coming from sources inside the state's security apparatus indicate Alhagie's health is deteriorating: He has a medical condition for which he needs to take daily medication. He left the US with a three month prescription that has, by now, run out. She fears that speaking out could ultimately put her brother and his friend at risk. At the least, she hopes she can shed light on the human rights abuses in Gambia and Jammeh's regime.
"I just have to talk, they may end up killing my brother, but I have to speak," she said, explaining that while her family might feel more free to talk and fight for Gambia if they found out he was dead, she'll do it anyways in the event it helps other Gambians.
"I'm just going to talk," she said. "If he's going to die, he's going to die. He can't die twice. If I can save more people, then I can speak up."
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