"I believe I will die"
Mile 2 Prison in Gambia's capital city Banjul still brings tremors of fear to Sukai Jack. Even sat in the lounge of Salford Women's Centre at the top of Langworthy Road she cries and gets breathless recounting her experiences…
Tortured with electrodes…raped every night at exactly 7pm…breasts slashed with knives and burnt with fag ends. It's the stuff of horror novels and nightmares. But it's one woman's real life story amidst military coups and disappearing dissidents in a land most people only know as an exotic African holiday place.
Three years ago, Sukai, a mother of two children, was working as a messenger for the Immigration Service in Gambia when staff were told to go to a welcoming reception for the President's wife. On the day she felt ill, got some medication and went home instead. The following morning the police came to her office, arrested her, beat her and made her kneel for two hours in the blazing sun, for daring to show disloyalty to the President. That was just the start of the hell that Sukai has lived through ever since.
As a messenger her job was to deliver letters to the State House, various offices and soldiers, but in March 2007 the police burst into her office again and took her and a secretary to the station, demanding to know why she delivered the letters and which people were involved in the coup.
"`Coup?' I said `What coup?'" Sukai recalls "`We know that you are part of the coup' they said `We have seen you at the State House lots of times with letters'…But I didn't know what was inside the letters, it was my job."
Turns out that one of the letters Sukai delivered had details of an attempted coup against the President, Yahya Jammeh, who himself had originally come to power via a coup but had since been ratified in multi-party elections. After he's come to power, lots of people have been arrested, detained or `disappeared', including prominent journalists critical of the regime. In August this year six Gambian journalists got two years in prison for criticising Jammeh.
In the police station, Sukai protested her innocence… "They just kept saying `You know there's a coup' and started hitting me and putting electric things on my wrists…When they put those on I just fainted so I don't know what happened after that…"
Sukai was taken without trial to Mile 2 Prison in Banjul…There, she says, she was tortured with electrodes and every night at 7pm the soldiers would come and rape her.
"Sometimes I used to fight them and one of them cut me with a knife on my right breast and another time when he started to rape me I tried to fight back and he used a cigarette on my right breast."
The 7pm rapes happened every night until one day Sukai heard on the soldiers' radio that her father had died.
"I started crying and screaming because I knew he had passed away because of me. There was nothing wrong with my dad. When the soldier came that night I told him `If you touch me I will fight you' but he said he wouldn't and since that day we were friends."
The soldier protected her from being raped by other soldiers by making sure that at 7pm every night she was cleaning out toilets, and one night they were talking when Sukai asked him why so many people she used to see in prison were not there any more. He said they were dead.
"So am I going to die one day?" I asked "He said `Maybe'…But I didn't do anything…"
Sukai took this plea to the President himself when he came to the prison to talk about the coup… "I said `I'm not political, I don't even have a voters card…I just took a letter…I didn't know what was in it…I don't open the letters'…He said `I know your family don't like me…I don't believe anything you say'. I knew I would never leave this place."
Sukai persuaded the soldier to go and visit her mum and children to see if they were ok, and while he was there her brother bribed him to get Sukai out of the jail. Weeks later, in a real life daring cloak and dagger experience she was sprung and on a plane to the UK.
First stop was Glasgow, then Liverpool to seek asylum, then Sukai arrived in Salford, baring all the physical and mental scars of her ordeal.
Meanwhile, back in Gambia her boss, an American citizen, was found guilty of being involved in the coup and was sentenced to twenty years hard labour. A distant cousin of hers was also found guilty. Almost seventy other people have also been named as being involved in the coup. Even if Sukai was involved, her `crime' was delivering a letter and not going to a poncy do for the President's wife. For this she was beaten, tortured and raped on a daily basis.
Sukai's story has been verified by the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture, which sent her to Salford Women's Centre for counselling. She now volunteers at the Centre working in the kitchen, gardening and doing outreach work, while longing to see her two sons who are still in Gambia… "I miss them so much" she cries.
The Home Office doesn't dispute that Sukai has been tortured, nor that she has visible marks on her body that are attributed to stab marks and cigarette burns. Yet the Home Office continues to turn down Sukai's appeals to stay in Salford, arguing that if she is sent back she will not be executed.
"If I go back to that prison it will be worse because they know I am in Britain" she says "The Home Office says that they can't kill me because my boss got 20 years hard labour. But he's an American citizen, if they kill him everyone will know. But I believe I will die."
Sukai isn't just caught up in military coups and dissidents in Gambia, she's also caught up in UK tick boxing. It's easier to send back a single woman than trying to repatriate a whole family with kids in a school and social services involved. Sukai has no kids here, no ties, so it's less embarrassing and there's less publicity if she is quietly put on a plane to her doom...to be tortured, raped and possibly `disappeared'.
But since Salford people have heard of Sukai's plight and the disgusting ordeal she's been through, and faces again, a campaign has been launched to Keep Sukai In Salford.
Sukai has been persuaded to tell her story in graphic detail (some of which we won't even print), no matter how traumatic for her, because as she says "I have to explain to the whole world what happened to me…People must know about it, and what is happening in Gambia."
Before the `Send 'em back' brigade start spouting off, they should look at the human pain and politics behind asylum seekers' stories…If Salford was in Gambia we'd all be in prison facing torture. Criticising the Government? It's a national pastime here…
There's a KEEP SUKAI IN SALFORD meeting tomorrow, Wednesday 7th October 6:30pm Salford Women's Centre, Halton Bank M6 7AB (top of Langworthy Rd near the start of the East Lancs Rd)
For further details phone/txt 07746 731710
Send messages of protest to Immigration Minister Phil Woolas firstname.lastname@example.org
SUKAI MAKES FRONT PAGE NEWS IN GAMBIA'S FREEDOM NEWSPAPER