By Baba Galleh Jallow
As I watched Yahya Jammeh get off of Gambian soil and step into the plane that carried him into exile, I felt heaviness in my chest and tears pouring uncontrollably down my face. No, they were not tears of joy at the fact that the tyrant who forced me and many other innocent Gambians into exile was himself now being forced into exile. Indeed, I cannot pretend to know why the tears poured out of my eyes and kept doing so for so long. Perhaps it was my sense of the tragic nature of human life; perhaps it was the reaffirmation of my conviction that those who make other people’s lives miserable must in the end become miserable themselves – that we indeed do reap what we sow, as Jammeh is now destined to do for the rest of his life. Perhaps it was because finally, the giant rock of injustice we have been striking for so long has finally crumbled into dust and our dear little country has been given another lease on life.
Exile has been described as the desert of the spirit. From day to day, the exiled person longs to return to home, to walk on the earth of his birth, to see the familiar scenes of his home, to visit the places he frequented as a child, to meet old friends and relatives and to revel in the sweetness of being surrounded by his own people, people who appreciate him as a person and who do not define him by the color of his skin. The exiled person watches from afar as his parents succumb to the hand of death and he is not able to go home to witness their burial or to visit their final resting places. He thinks of the longing in the eyes of his mother or his father as they lay on their death beds, wishing they could see their child one last time and knowing how futile that wish was. The exile’s siblings and friends and relatives pass away and he feels chained to his spot of exile. The parents of dear friends and neighbors – kind elderly men and women who treated him like their own children in his childhood days pass away and he is not able to go commiserate with their families. Day after day, he hears of people passing away, some distant relatives, some dear childhood friends, some school mates or respected neighbors and he is unable to attend their funerals or visit their families. The pain of longing for home grows deeper by the day as the years pass by and he remains stuck in a foreign land. Once in a while, he dreams of home only to wake up and realize that he is so far away from home and cannot go home because of a tyrannical regime that has claimed ownership of his country and denies him the right to live and work in his own motherland.
Exile is an intolerable condition and one tolerates exile just because one has to. For some of us, exile was made reasonably tolerable by the fact that we remained perpetually connected to home. We refused to take our eyes off the reason for our exile and persistently hammered away at the foundation of the evil that was the regime of Yahya Jammeh. We insisted on spiritually and emotionally living at home and having our say in the affairs of our country – the say which Yahya Jammeh sought but failed to deny us. We insisted on our freedom to participate in the discourse on the future and destiny of our dear country that Yahya Jammeh sought but failed to deny us. We insisted that tyrannical regimes like Yahya Jammeh’s could force us into exile, but they could never force us to remain silent and therefore be accessories to the ritual political murder of our country that he repeatedly committed through his unbridled and mindless despotism. For us, going physically into exile did not translate into going mentally into exile. While we physically lived in a faraway and often hostile land, our hearts and minds spent every single day and night, every minute and hour on the soils of our dear Smiling Coast, tending to the wounds that the Jammeh regime continuously inflicted on our dear motherland. Silence was never an option for us and hesitation or compromise on matters of truth and justice as far as they affected the future and destiny of our country was never an option. We were determined to keep calling Yahya Jammeh out and vigorously chipping away at the seemingly stout trunk of despotism he represented until it collapsed under its own weight of blunders, crimes and sins against humanity and against itself. We were encouraged by the firm knowledge that while despotism often thinks of itself as indomitable and invincible, it is always engaged in a process of perpetual self-destruction that will eventually claim its life. Yahya Jammeh’s tragic fate is living testimony and a reaffirmation of this natural truth. Perhaps the tears flowed down our eyes at the beauty of the truth of natural justice manifesting right before us.
People go into exile for reasons that may often be broadly categorized as either right or wrong reasons. Those who go into exile because of their insistence on respect for natural justice and the sanctity of human dignity go into exile for the right reasons. Those who go into exile because of their disrespect for natural justice and their trampling on the sanctity of human dignity go into exile for the wrong reasons. Yahya Jammeh belongs to the latter category. He is not going into exile because he was a victim of injustice but because he was a perpetrator of injustice. He is not going into exile because he had seen the light of reason but because he had seen and feared a real threat of physical annihilation by a force greater than himself. Yet, unlike people who go into exile for the right reasons, Yahya Jammeh cannot remain connected in any positive way to his homeland. He cannot advocate for respect for natural justice because it was his disrespect for natural justice that landed him in exile. He cannot advocate for respect for human dignity because it was his disrespect for human dignity that landed him in exile. His exile will be much more painful than ours because he has no cause to fight for on behalf of the country and the people he has bullied and terrorized for 22 years. He can wallow in the laps of luxury, but he will never be able to stop or get any relief from the painful pangs of homesickness that all exiles suffer from day to day, week to week, month to month and year to year. His exile will be a much hotter and drier desert for his spirit than those who were forced into exile for the right reasons and who therefore hope to return home someday.
Exile is a strange form of prison. It is a prison that allows you to go anywhere you want but the place you most want to go – home. It is a prison that allows you to walk on any soil you want but the soil you most want to walk on – your home soil. It is a prison that allows you to touch anything you want but the thing you most want to touch – your home. It is a prison that allows you to see anything you want but the thing you most want to see – your home. And so the exile finds himself in the paradoxical situation of being at once a free person and a prisoner of sorts. But exile may be tolerable if you are an inmate in its strange prison for the right reasons – for standing up against despotism and injustice. If, as in Yahya Jammeh’s case you are an exile for the wrong reasons, for perpetuating despotism and injustice, for trampling upon the lives and dignities of innocent human beings, this strange prison will prove much more excruciatingly painful. For while those exiled for the right reasons may entertain and be nurtured by the hope of walking on their home soil again if they live long enough, those exiled for the wrong reasons may hardly dare to hope for such an eventuality.
And so as the despotic regime that forced some of us into exile finally drops into the dustbin of historical infamy where it will be forever consigned, we can only say to our dear little homeland that we have never really left you. Our hearts and minds have always been with you, our spirits have always slept in your tender arms and our energies have always been directed at liberating and protecting you from the clutches of a malignant dictatorship that is now history. And so we send you dear Mother Gambia, our true and unconditional love from exile. We pray that God grants us the opportunity to see you soon and to grant us the strength, wisdom and capacity to continue loving and serving you to the best of our abilities, however human, however limited. God bless you Mother Gambia, the Smiling Coast of West Africa.