As It Happens

This Toronto woman says a Gambian dictator raped her. Now she's fighting for justice

Jallow, 23, is one of three women who have publicly accused the exiled former president Yahya Jammeh of rape, and the only one to use her full name. 

Yahya Jammeh's party says the allegations are 'aimed at tarnishing' the former president's 'good reputation'

Fatou (Toufah) Jallow fled to Toronto after her country's former president, Yahya Jammeh, allegedly raped her. (Human Rights Watch )
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Warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault. 


Transcript

When the former president of Gambia asked Fatou Jallow to marry him, she thought he was joking.

After all, she was only 18 years old, and up until that moment, the notorious dictator had treated her in a "friendly, fatherly" manner. 

"But he really meant it," Jallow, who goes by the nickname Toufah, told As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan.  "I said no to him. And I think that was the root cause of his anger ... toward me."

Jallow, 23, is one of three women who have publicly accused the exiled former president Yahya Jammeh of rape in a report by Human Rights Watch and Trial International, and the only one to use her full name. 

His political party, Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, has denied the allegations.

It started with a beauty pageant 

Jallow was invited to meet with Jammeh at his presidential palace several times after she was crowned queen at Gambia's state-sponsored beauty pageant in December 2014, a contest she entered for the chance to win a scholarship. 

He'd called her beautiful, offered her a job, had her family's home furnished and equipped with running water, advised her to avoid getting married too young and told her use her $1,250 US in prize money to follow her own dreams. 

So when he invited her to appear at a government-sponsored Ramadan celebration shortly after she rebuked his marriage proposal, she didn't think much of it.

"When the president calls, you answer," she said. "That was the night that everything changed."

Jammeh, right, poses for pictures with Jallow after she won a beauty pageant on Dec. 24. 2014 in Banjul. (Human Rights Watch)

Jammeh sent a car for her, and it brought her directly to the president's statehouse.

A woman brought her to his room and left her there alone, saying she was going to fetch some water. The president walked in a few minutes later. 

"He was a different man that day," she said. "He was very angry at me. He asked how dare I, a little village girl, really from not a very strong background, would have the audacity to say no to his marriage proposal."

'Who's going to believe me?'

He threw her down on the bed, she said. He stripped off her clothes. She fought and screamed, but he told her nobody would hear.

"He said all the derogatory things that he could and he claimed that this would have been nicer if I had just accepted the proposal," she said. 

She remembers his eyes were filled with "rage, but also excitement."

"It wasn't the fatherly look that I'd been used to," she said. 

I am that girl that has arisen from the ashes- Fatou Jallow

She says he injected her arm with some kind of narcotic, then he raped her until she lost consciousness. 

When she woke up, she stumbled out of the room and back to the car, and was driven home.  

She didn't tell anybody what happened. Silence is a common response for sexual assault survivors, but in Jallow's case, she says it was also necessary for self-preservation. 

"Who's going to believe me?" she said. "It's going to cost me my life for sure."

A brutal regime 

Jammeh seized control of Gambia in 1994 and ruled for 22 years.

Under his leadership, journalists were routinely jailed or beaten, political opponents were tortured and killed, and tens of thousands of Gambians fled the West African country.

He signed a bill into law making some homosexual acts punishable by life in jail. He was sued for promising to "cure" people of HIV with a body rub and herbal concoction of his own creation. 

Jammeh has lived in exile since he was ousted in a 2017 election. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

When he was defeated in a 2017 election, he refused to step down for six weeks. When he finally ceded power to President Adama Barrow, he fled to Equatoral Guinea, taking with him at least $11.4 million US in government money and several luxury cars.

He has never faced justice for any of his atrocities, alleged or otherwise. The country has since established a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to investigate allegations of abuse, torture and extrajudicial killings by his regime. 

The road to justice 

President Barrow has said he will wait until the TRRC is over before deciding whether to seek his former rival's extradition to Gambia to face charges.

In the meantime, Human Rights Watch and Trial International, an advocacy group for the victims of crime, have been compiling their own evidence against Jammeh in the hopes of seeing him brought to justice. 

They have published the testimony of three women, including Jallow, who alleged the former president raped them. The other two women said they worked as "protocol girls" for Jammeh — young, female assistants he kept on staff so he could routinely use them for sex. 

Jallow says she's on a quest for justice. (Human Rights Watch)

"Yahya Jammeh treated Gambian women like his personal property," Reed Brody, the Human Rights Watch lawyer who led the investigation, said in a press release. "Rape and sexual assault are crimes, and Jammeh is not above the law."

Jammeh, who is still in exile, could not be reached for comment.  But in a statement to the New York Times, his party called the rape allegations a smear campaign "aimed at tarnishing the good reputation of Gambia's legendary and visionary leader."

"The APRC, as a Party, and the Gambian people are tired of the steady stream of unfounded allegations that have been reported against our ex-President."

Escaping to Canada 

The next time Jammeh summoned Yallow, she knew exactly what he wanted.

"It hit me for the first time that this is not a one-time thing. He's going to keep doing this until my nos become yes," she said.

"I decided that I would rather die or whatever, but I'm not going to go through this again."

She grabbed some money and told her mother she was going to the market. Instead, she fled across the border to Senegal, contacted a relative in England, and sought the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

She sought asylum in Canada in 2015 and is now a permanent resident. She lives in Toronto where she works, attends university and volunteers at a women's shelter. 

"This is home. This has been a life saver for me. The country and its people and everything that it offers has been tremendously helpful for me," she said.

"The journey and opportunity I have had has helped me to gather such strength and healing, and to be able to take away the shame and want to put it on him now. "

That's why she decided to use her name and face while telling her story. And when Human Rights Watch asked her to do a news conference about her allegations in London, she insisted they do it in Gambia instead.

"The biggest mission in my life is to actually meet him in a courtroom," she said.

"When he walked me into that room, he asked me who did I think I was to deny him marriage or my body. And what I would like to say to him is that I am that girl that has risen from the ashes and [I'm] here to haunt him and men like him, and to dismantle every power that he thought he had in that moment."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Katie Geleff.