The setting sun cast its reddish glow over the white-washed perimeter fence where the shadow of the tall crimson wall struggled to stretch far out across the highway. An aura of serenity and melancholic sombreness surrounded the place which was at once strange and awe-striking, mysterious and frightening.
As darkness set in over the imposing metal gate facing the surging sea where the Gambia River empties into the mighty Atlantic Ocean, across the Sere-Kunda highway and beneath a canopy of lush green brush, a reluctant female agamidae lizard scampered hurriedly into the underbrush, pursued closely by a larger yellow headed male lizard in much need of reptilian affection.
And barely visible in the growing darkness, an eerie sign festooned on the imposing metal gate, which had long ago begun to rust out of age, spoke loudly even in its stoic silence. The menacing sign on the gate said it all and then some; Mile 2 Prison. Today, the dreaded name Mile 2 Prison conjures up images of brutality unheard of elsewhere on the African continent; images of torture, and of physical emaciation, of death and dying and of extra-judicial executions. For Mile 2 Prison is now a place where dying has become so routine, and where visible despair and hopelessness have reduced a once vibrant people into mere skeletons of apathy and despondency.
To the scores of Gambians and non-Gambians locked up behind the menacing walls of Mile 2 Prisons, it is as if time has long ago stopped. For behind the impenetrable concrete walls, a desperate population is held captive; a population whose reality is confined to what their tormented minds can dream up, dreams that are as real as the ghosts of Mbulumang or better still, as realistic as the witches of the whispering hills of Sare Hella.
But maybe, just maybe, time has stopped for them after all. Maybe theirs is not a world of illusions and make-belief, but a world far removed from our own world, our real world. But whatever it is, however much we try to bring their predicament to life, give meaning to the senselessness that engulfs them, draw attention to the helplessness that tortures them, and scream misery from the mountain top, one thing is certain, Mile 2 Prisons is a curse to our collective national conscience. It is a cruel aberration, debasing and immoral, and deriving from the dark underbelly of sadism and misanthropic. It is a wound that has found its ugly place in our unwritten history, there to remain engraved into our collective consciences for the rest of time.
Mile 2 Prisons is a colonial-era relic, but the genesis of its world-wide notoriety today, is a new phenomenon. The new Mile 2 Prisons is a creation of the Yahya Jammeh military regime. Only a little over one decade ago, Mile 2 Prison did not strike fear in the hearts of Gambians, but today the prison complex has come to life for all the wrong reasons. And around the clock every day, as tens of thousands of commuters and hundreds of vehicles ply the Banjul and Sere-Kunda highway completely oblivious of the suffering behind the tall oppressive walls of Mile 2 Prison, the prisoners inside are subjected to unbearable agony and the unfathomable cruelty for which the prison has become synonymous with. For within those tall prison walls are hundreds of prisoners, the walking dead if you will, who have given up on living, because no one can help them, no one can save them from the stranglehold of a madman whose regime has brought so much disrepute to a once peaceful nation. The Gambia today is a changed country. It is a country that has turned into a place where its people once so full of hope, no longer think for themselves or pursue their dreams free, secure and un-afraid of the sanguinary power of tyranny. More than any other institution, Mile 2 Prison represents the inveterate canker of a regime whose era came and went so long ago, and whose hysteria and panache for the dramatic, lies smouldering in the graves of those cruel men who gave us an era we will never forget; Idi Amin, Sekou Toure, Mobutu Sese and “Emperor” Bokassa.
But as these long dead murderous dictators of a by-gone era rot in their graves, and the living of their kind face a hostile world, The Gambia is one of a few countries resurrecting to life the evil and cruelty of an era remembered for its waste of human life and the martyrdom of its political dissidents. It was an era boldly represented in murals and tombstones carved in the blood of those who sacrificed their lives that others may have freedom, and today, their spirits speak to us in our waking moments and in our dreams.
Yet, Gambians have failed to live up to the causes for which they gave up their lives, the political awakening they bequeathed to us, the exemplary lives by which they lived and died, and the freedoms we inherited from their dying. For, high above Mile 2 Prison, the troubled ghost of Jallow Union floats in perpetual agony, the mortified soul of Steve Biko remains paralyzed by disbelief, and the eloquent spirit of the venerable Stokely Carmichael roams in restless frustration.
For even as their bodies turn into the salt of the earth, they remind us of the freedoms for which they fought, freedoms taken away from us, not by accident, but by the calculation of a despot who has left behind us a trail of agony and suffering throughout the length and breadth of our country. But in their ghostliness, the long-gone warriors of freedom command us to take back our lost freedoms; the freedom they championed until they each drew their last dying breaths.
Mid-morning around Mile 2 Prison plays out much like nature’s theatre in all its awesomeness. To the east, where the mighty Atlantic Ocean hugs The Gambia River in a million-year embrace, the gentle, lazy waves flap incessantly against the serene coastline, slowly eating the bright Banjul sands away to create small fragile sand cliffs that melt easily away with the touch of a drop of water. And in the distance, across the greyish sea, the Barra slave fort, in all its medieval allure, is clearly visible below where a swarm of sea gulls in hunger driven determination, dive ceaselessly into the warm waters to pluck out unsuspecting fish from beneath the rippling waves. To the west of Mile 2 Prison, wide expanses of swampland teeming with marine life stretch eastward towards Bakau, Tallingding and as far as the eye can see.
But neither the solemn demure of nearby Palm Grove Hotel nor the enchanting unpretentiousness that surrounds Wadner Beach Hotel can exorcise Mile 2 Prison of its latent deadliness. In a strange yet familiar way, there is a strange uniqueness about Mile 2 Prison that mirrors the images of Dachau, of Auschwitz, of Tiananmen Square, and of Treblinka. For even from the outside, Mile 2 Prison’s fortified and seemingly innocent walls betray a cold deadliness that in a strange way is captivating in its unforgiving cruelty. And inside, everywhere one looks, the invisible scars of prison life exemplify a place where dreams go to perish; where hope goes to die. And as darkness slowly engulfed Mile 2 Prison in a solemnity only it can exude, inside the prison proper, a thousand eye balls as bright as the stars, stare listless into the nothingness. In a far corner of the prison yard, an emaciated human body, with skeletal bones visible from the distance, stared at the concrete wall, giggled, and muttered barely audible gibber to himself.
In that oppressive environment, Mile 2 Prison has turned a place where people go not to pay their dues to society, but a place where they go to die. In the mind’s eye they are visible; mere shadows of their former selves; the hungry, the sick, the hardened skins, the listless, the big, bright sunken eyed, and the frightening look of despair that has spelt death a million times before; in Treblinka, in Auschwitz and this God-forsaken place of darkness; Mile 2 Prison. Many have died here, more in one decade under Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorship, than the entire history of the prison.
As of today, more than one hundred prisoners by the last count have died there, and still they die; of hunger, of sickness, and of the unbearable burden of prison life. There are the executed whose gravesites still remain unknown, unmarked, and out of sight, and there are the other dying whose families are silenced by the terror of death; their own death. And as for the suffering prisoners, they are our friends too, our brothers, sisters, neighbours, family and fellow Gambians.
But we seem not to care. For we have turned our backs on them and so they continue to suffer in silence, as time passes them by. They are our own “wretched of the earth,” defeated and stalked by death. They are Gambia’s forgotten, left to their own devices, without hope and waking up not knowing if they will ever live to see another day. Yet in spite of the pain or rather, as a result of it, in their hearts, they keep praying to an unknown deity for one more day. Just one more day of life.
Author: Mathew K. Jallow, Madison, Wisconsin: From Echo Files:2013