Former Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh directed sporadic "witch hunts" across the country of 2 million, a practice confirmed by Gambia's government. Picture: Jerome Delay/AP

Sintet, Gambia - Yahya Jammeh was 15 years into his tenure as Gambia's autocratic leader in 2009 when, according to local media reports, he ordered security forces to round up hundreds of "sorcerers" - reportedly in retribution for the death of his aunt, who he said was killed by witchcraft.

Over the next seven years, Jammeh directed sporadic "witch hunts" across the West African country of 2 million, a practice confirmed by Gambia's government. Armed soldiers targeted poor, elderly farmers, forcing them to drink a hallucinogenic liquid before pressuring them into confessing to murders by sorcery, according to victims.

Interviews with more than 20 victims and dozens of witnesses and local leaders in two rural villages revealed a pattern of kidnappings, beatings and forced confessions that have had lasting health implications on survivors and resulted in several deaths, according to surviving family members and neighbours.

Gambia's government last year launched a commission to investigate alleged abuses under Jammeh, working with an independent centre to provide support for survivors of Jammeh-ordered atrocities. But none of the villagers interviewed by The Washington Post said they had contact with government investigators or the victims centre.

Gambian Minister of Information Demba Jawo confirmed the "witch hunts" took place, both in Gambia's countryside and in government offices in the area around the capital, Banjul. Jawo also confirmed he had heard reports that some victims had died. He called the witch hunts "yet another manifestation of (Jammeh's) superstitious tendencies."

"Hardly any people could question those things," he said. "The programme was mere superstition, and it had no scientific basis."

No one really knows what Jammeh hoped to gain from the witch hunts. Once the soldiers gained the forced confessions, villagers said, the victims were released or left to be found by family and friends. The deaths that followed days, months and years later were mostly the result of health complications triggered by ingesting the hallucinogenic liquid.

Baba Jallow, the executive secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said he is waiting until the body is fully established to begin reaching out to victims across the country.

Jawo echoed this, saying officials expected outreach to begin as early as July: "The process is definitely on. The government wants to concentrate on that process."

Jammeh was in power for 22 years before being voted out as president at the end of 2016. Although he initially conceded defeat, Jammeh later changed his mind - only fleeing to Equatorial Guinea when the Economic Community of West African States threatened to send in troops to remove him.

But he continues to be a divisive figure among Gambian communities. Many villagers are still unwilling to speak about human rights abuses out of fear that Jammeh will return. Others say they still support the ex-president.

For the many illiterate residents of the farming village of Sintet, about 80 miles east of Banjul, dates and numbers are difficult to specify, and the years blend together. But one day nine years ago stands out.

Witnesses recall dozens of security forces arriving one afternoon in 2009, accompanied by men they describe as foreign "witch doctors," dressed in red and wearing mirrors around their necks, who had come to cleanse the areas of witches. Jawo, the minister of information, said the figures were "sorcerers from Guinea." Their attire is thought to play a role in witch hunting: The mirrors are used to identify targets, locals said.

Lamin K. Sanyang, a spokesman for the Gambian armed forces, said that while "officially there is no document or correspondence" that says the military was involved in witch hunts, "there have been incidences where some of our people have been used, escorting witch doctors going around."

That would have been an "abuse of the armed forces," he said.

Dembo Badjie, Sintet's village chief of four years, said he remembered soldiers with guns. His wife was one of those taken, he said. She later died of health complications caused by the witch hunt, several neighbors said. Badjie confirmed that his wife died but refused to specify her cause of death.

"They surrounded the village," said 21-year-old Wday Darboe, who was a primary-school student at the time. "Some (soldiers) went to the bush. Others went house to house."

"They would chase you and beat you seriously," recalled Fatou Dubba, a mother of six in her 40s. The villagers were consistent in their accounts and told a harrowing story.

In Sintet locals were rounded up, witnesses said. Soldiers filled one minibus and two trucks with people before driving them to Kanilai, Jammeh's home town, according to multiple victims taken on the buses and witnesses who saw them leave.

There, victims said, they were held in a compound until, one by one, they were forced to drink a bitter liquid at gunpoint. They say it was kubejaro, a plant with hallucinogenic properties that grows in Gambia and is sometimes used by traditional healers. Several villagers recognised the effects of the plant after seeing teenagers consume it to become inebriated.

"Most of the people lost their senses. They peed themselves," said Dubba, who was captured with her mother-in-law.

"It's like if you get drunk, you become unconscious," explained Fatou Darbo, a victim in her 60s. "We were terrified. I can't remember anything. After drinking, they forced us to confess how many people we killed."

Many Gambians say they believe in witchcraft. Faith healers and spiritual cures have devotees here. But Sintet's residents say they were selected randomly and forced to confess to crimes they didn't commit.

"One of my children passed away before that happened," said Fadou Drammeh, 66. "I was forced to confess I killed my own child." Drammeh said a soldier also poured urine on her head.

Fatou Camara remembers being surrounded by 10 men. After declaring she would rather die than say she practiced witchcraft, they made her swallow the liquid a second time. She fainted and hit her head, then lost the ability to speak for hours, she said.

"The only thing we knew was that Jammeh said we were witches," said Matty Sanyang, a victim in her 50s. "After we were released, it took me awhile to even be able to walk." Sanyang was later admitted to a hospital for medical treatment.

In 2009, Amnesty International reported two deaths from kidney failure during the witch hunts that year. But victims and others in Sintet say at least nine people died in the weeks and months that followed as a direct consequence of what happened.

One died of injuries from being heavily beaten during the village roundup, and eight others died of health complications that friends and relatives attributed to the liquid they were forced to drink.

Sansan Cammara was whisked away by soldiers during a naming ceremony for a relative's baby, according to five other women in attendance. She died less than a week after being taken, according to friends, neighbours and her daughter, Muskeba Jarjue, 39, who cared for her and organised her funeral.

"She was a very hard-working woman," said a friend, Isatou Jobatah. "She valued humanity, discriminated against no one."

Jarjue remembers her horror at Cammara's appearance upon her release. Cammara was unable to eat or sleep, she said, and the inside of her mouth was discoloured.

Nine years after the first round of witch hunts, many survivors say they still suffer from health issues including stomach problems, weakness, body pains and anxiety. One woman hides whenever she sees a van approaching. Others still have nightmares.

"People still get upset," said Darbo. "They threatened to come back."