Victims of Yahya Jammeh's fake HIV cure fight back

Deposed Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh subjected HIV patients to fake treatments. /Thierry Gouegnon/REUTERS
Deposed Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh subjected HIV patients to fake treatments. /Thierry Gouegnon/REUTERS

The president had found a cure for Aids. That was the news that reached Ousman Sowe, the head of a Gambian Aids support network, one day in 2007. He was overjoyed.

"We all went with the hope that we were going to take a drop of some wonderful medication and be cured," Sowe, 64, a tall man with greying hair, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an office outside Gambia's rundown seaside capital.

But he was not allowed to go home after showing up at the state house that day.

Gambia's ex-president Yahya Jammeh forced him to drink herbal concoctions morning and night for seven months until he was declared cured - but, he was in reality, near death. Jammeh, whose 22-year rule over the tiny West African state was marked by accusations of human rights abuses, fled into exile last year after losing an election.

Now survivors of Jammeh's bogus Aids treatment are doing what once seemed impossible - speaking out about their suffering and pursuing justice against the man who endangered their lives.

An estimated 9000 Gambians, most with HIV, passed through Jammeh's treatment programmes and were forced to give up conventional medicine in favour of his homemade cures, said Aids-Free World, a US-based charity working with survivors.

The fake Aids treatment not only had grave health consequences for the patients, some of whom died, but hindered real HIV/Aids prevention efforts in the country, Unaids said.

"There was sort of a blackout of information on HIV, because everything was related to the president's treatment," said the UN agency's country director Sirra Ndow.

"There was the perception that if there was a cure, you didn't need support."

Although HIV death rates are falling and treatment rates rising globally, Gambia is trailing. Its infection rate - of about 2% - is much lower than many African countries.

But only 30% of Gambians with HIV were on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) in 2016, while the target is 90% by 2020, according to Unaids.

Sowe and two other outspoken survivors, Fatou Jatta and Lamin Ceesay, are working with lawyers and activists to gather evidence against Jammeh.

All three are in their 50s or 60s and struggling with poor health, discrimination and poverty.

"We believe they should be compensated, but time is really against us," said Agasha Tabaro, a legal fellow with Aids-Free World. "This is a health issue, and it's urgent."

The patients never knew what Jammeh was feeding them. Sometimes it came in a bottle, sometimes powdered, sometimes mixed with canned milk or honey.

If they sipped the concoctions, he would yell, forcing them to drink it all at once, they said. -

X