THE CITIZENS OF GAMBIA, A TINY WEST AFRI-can nation, have grown familiar with the unpredictable exploits of its absolute ruler, who insists on being called His Excellency President Professor Dr Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh: his herbs-and-banana cure for Aids, his threat to behead gays, his mandate that only he can drive through the giant arch commemorating his coup in the mouldering capital, Banjul, and his ubiquitous grinning portrait posted along roadsides.
Not to mention the documented disappearances, torture and imprisonment of dozens of journalists and political opponents.
But then came a campaign so confounding and strange that the citizens are still reeling and sickened from it, literally, weeks after it apparently ended.
The president, it seems, had become concerned about witches in this country of mango trees, tropical scrub, dirt roads, innumerable police checkpoints and an Atlantic coastline frequented by sun-seeking European tourists mostly unaware of the activities at nearby Mile 2 State Central Prison, where many opponents of the regime are taken.
To the accompaniment of drums, and directed by men in red tunics bedecked with mirrors and cowrie shells, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Gambians were taken from their villages and driven by bus to secret locations.
There they were forced to drink a foul-smelling concoction that made them hallucinate, gave them severe stomach pains, induced some to try digging a hole in a tiled floor, made others try climbing up a wall and in some cases killed them, according to the villagers themselves and Amnesty International.
THE OBJECTIVE WAS TO ROOT OUT WITCHES, evil sorcerers who were harming the country, the villagers were told.
Terrified, dozens of other people fled into the bush or across the border into Senegal to escape the dragnet, villagers said, leaving whole regions deserted. Amnesty estimates that at least six people died after being forced to drink the potion, whose composition is unknown.
The roundups occurred from late January through March, according to people here.
But even in recent weeks, the same witchdoctors in red, accompanied by others identified as government agents, have circulated in the dirt-poor countryside — Gambia was ranked 195th of 209 countries by the World Bank in 2007, with a per capita income of $270 a year — demanding that villagers make animal sacrifices, of a red he-goat and a red rooster, to root out the sorcery supposedly in their midst.
Gambian officials did not respond to e-mail messages and phone calls, and the government has not commented on articles recounting the anti-witch campaign in the opposition newspaper Foroyaa (“Freedom,” in the Mandinka language), according to the paper’s editor, Sam Sarr.
Amnesty International says it received a press release from the country’s attorney general declaring such witch-hunting activities “inconceivable.”
Yet the testimonies are numerous, and experts on this former British colony have little doubt that the witch-hunts occurred, and on the scale described.
The roundups were guided by the president’s “Green Boys,” villagers say.
The Green Boys are President Jammeh’s most militant supporters, “vigilante die-hards,” said Abdoulaye Saine, a political scientist at Miami University of Ohio.
They dress in green and sometimes paint their faces green, the colour of Jammeh’s political party, the Alliance for Patriotic Re-Orientation and Construction.
The roundups were conducted with force, guns in evidence and directed largely at the elderly, witnesses and local journalists said.
Even in the often brutal context of his 15-year dictatorship, this year’s roundups stand out, the president’s few open critics in Gambia say.
Since the 1994 coup that brought him to power, at least 27 journalists have fled the country. One was murdered and another has not been seen since his arrest by the dreaded National Intelligence Agency.
Others have described prolonged torture by electric shock and the use of knives and lighted cigarettes in Jammeh’s jails.
But this time, it was not critical journalists or political opponents who were singled out.
“There’s a feeling that if this can happen, anything can happen,” said opposition leader Halifah Sallah, the minority leader in Parliament from 2002 to 2007, who has himself been arrested four times, most recently for speaking out against the witch hunts.
People no longer have the protection of the laws,” Mr Sallah said. During the witch-hunts, “people were in a state of panic” throughout Gambia, a country of 1.7 million, he said.
On the teeming streets of Serrekunda, a suburb of Banjul, people expressed fear. “All of them are opposition, but they are not talking, because if you are talking, you are going to the police,” said Lalo Jaiteh, a building contractor, gesturing nervously at a bustling row of vendors.
The anxiety has persisted.
The witchcraft accusation brings shame in a society where belief in sorcery “was pervasive and still is pervasive,” according to Lamin Sanneh, a Gambian-born history professor at Yale University.
Beyond that is the trauma of being uprooted and the illnesses that people say linger from the bitter potion.
“This stigma will follow us into our grave,” said Dembo Jariatou Bojang, the village development committee chairman in Jambur, a dusty town some 25 kilometres from the capital. “We will never forget this.”
He said he was taken, along with about 60 others, after being assembled in the village square, attracted by the beating of the drums. Driven by bus to a place they did not recognise, Mr Jariatou Bojang was made to drink and bathe in the foul liquid.
“My head is still paining sometimes,” he said.
As he spoke, an elderly man sitting on the floor of the village imam’s house shook his head uncontrollably from side to side. The men in the room said the symptom developed after the man, said to be in his 80s, was forced to drink the liquid.
Omar Bojang, the son of the imam, Karamo Bojang, recalled being told to undress, and ordered to drink “filthy water from a tin.”
“Once you drink that, you become unconscious, you can’t think,” he said.
Forty miles away in the village of Bintang, Mamadou Kanteh, a fisherman, recounted the visit of the men in red several weeks ago. “It’s the president who sent us,’” they said. “There are witches in the country who are hurting people, and killing people.”
They demanded the sacrifice of a red goat and a rooster. The imam of Bintang recalled drawing about $40 from the village treasury to pay for the animals, which were slaughtered at the graveyard beyond the town’s unlighted dirt streets.
Back in Serrekunda, pedestrians hastened away when asked about the president. Mr Jaiteh, the contractor, ducked inside a darkened shack, hidden from the street by two towering stacks of tyres, to talk about the government with a friend. “Human rights is not here right now,” the friend, Yaya Gasam, said. “Human rights is ... pop.”
The New York Times