David Berihun Kohen

Accra + Ghana

STOP HOMOPHOBIA

Gay + Male / 17 and Under + 18-22 / Christian + Muslim

My name is David Berihun Kohen and here is my story.

Gambia is an enclave country in West Africa mostly surrounded by Senegal with a short strip of its coastline bordered by the Atlantic Ocean at its western end. It is the smallest country on mainland Africa. Its area is 10,689 square kilometers (4,127 square miles) with a population of 1,882,450 at the April 15th 2013 census. Banjul is the Gambian capital, and the largest cities are Serekunda and Brikama.

My parents reside in Banjul, providing private tutoring to some of Gambian most richest families. On November 1997, my father took my pregnant mother on a short trip to the Caribbean Island of British Virgin Island. I was born November 11, 1997 in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Since none of my parents hold Belonger status of British Virgin Islands, I was not eligible for citizenship. In essence I was born stateless until I derived citizenship through Gambia. Raised in Banjul, Gambia along with my sibling. We were all home schooled but unlike my siblings I graduated at the age of 14 through St. Augustine’s Senior Secondary School (All Boys School) Banjul North, Gambia in 2011 with a presidential scholarship as a gifted student to read medicine at School of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, University of Gambia, Serekunda, Gambia. However, that dream never came to pass – because I was gay.

Growing up gay in Gambia is the most difficult ever – I officially came out to my closest friends and family in February 2006 but I come out a little more every day – it’s a journey. I feel like my sexuality has unfolded slowly, starting from the time I was home schooled. I remember playing with my best friend and how it felt to kiss him when we intended to be husband and wife. I remember getting dressed in gym with my homeschooled classmates and letting my eyes linger on their bodies for too long and then feeling like something was wrong with me. I remember having a 15 years old boyfriend, who was gay, when I was 10 years old and how comfortable and right it felt to be with another man. For a time I thought I was gay too but somewhere deep inside it didn’t feel right – it’s still a journey. And now at 18 years old, after I realized that I had more than “friendly” feeling towards one of my closest friends, who came out a week before I did, I know that I am gay.

I now accept that fact that I am a man who loves other men. I am gay and it’s okay. Coming out openly is supposed to be a beautiful thing – a self-realization and personal fulfillment, but not in Gambia. When you are gay or lesbian in Gambia, you are facing life in prison.

Gambia President Yahya Jammeh said in May 2008 that laws “stricter than those in Iran” would soon be introduced and vowed to “cut off the head” of any homosexual caught in the country. On May 15, 2008 Jammeh gave homosexuals 24 hours to leave the country. He also commanded that all those who harbor such individuals to kick them out of their compounds, noting that a mass patrol will be conducted. He said any hotel, lodge or motel that lodges this kind of individual will be closed down, because this act is unlawful.

On 10 April 2012, a court remanded 18 alleged homosexuals — 16 from Senegal, 1 from the Gambia (me), and 1 from Nigeria. We were arrested on April 9, 2012 at a bar in the Tourism Development Area. We were charged with indecent practice among ourselves at a Public Place. According to the police testimony in court in July 2012, the arrests were made because we were wearing women’s clothes, carrying handbags, and “walking like ladies.” On August 2012, the prosecutor dropped all charges for lack of adequate evidence in the case. As a result of this incidence, my scholarship to medical school was also revoked.

The criminal code of Gambia was recently amended again creating a broad and vague offense of “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by life imprisonment. The amendment to the criminal code was approved by the National Assembly and signed into law by the President on 9 October 2014. It targets among others, so-called “serial offenders” (meaning individuals with a previous conviction for homosexuality), could be imprisonment for life.

So I decided to depart somewhere – anywhere but Gambia. That was how I came to Nigeria.

Nigeria is often referred to as the “Giant of Africa”, owing to its large population and economy. With approximately 174 million inhabitants, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the seventh most populous country in the world. Nigeria has one of the largest populations of youth in the world. The country is inhabited by over 500 ethnic groups, of which the three largest are the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. Regarding religion, Nigeria is divided roughly in half between Christians, who live mostly in the southern and central parts of the country, and Muslims, concentrated mostly in the northern and southwestern regions. A minority of the population practice religions indigenous to Nigeria, such as those native to Igbo and Yoruba peoples.

As a teenager, it’s difficult to travel to Nigeria from Gambia, but I got surprise help from a good Samaritan who helped me escape from Gambia so I can stay with my uncle who teaches at the Faculty of Science, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi State, Nigeria. Less than five months later, we were arrested by Bauchi State Sharia Commission (State Penal Court Charges – which carry a death penalty) and aiding and supporting gay organization (federal charges) which carry 10-14 years in federal prison. We were detained, beaten and arraigned before Bauchi State Sharia Commission Judge in the morning of January 18th, 2014 in Bauchi State, Nigeria. Most of us were minors and had no legal representations. Various sentences were handed down by the judge which ranged anywhere from flogging to 2-year sentences, but I was detained under special circumstances as a foreigner. The evidence against me was overwhelming – computers, cell phones, pictures, newsletters were collected from my apartment. Some of us were released, while others went to prison, and I was handed over to the Nigeria Police Force and subsequently transferred from Bauchi state to the care of Assistant Commissioner of Police Mr. Rasak Abdullraheem, Criminal Investigation Department, Airport Police Command, Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Ikeja Lagos, on February 10, 2014.

The Gambian Embassy was notified of my arrest, detention and charges. The Gambian authorities requested that I should be extradited from Nigeria to Gambia so I can be tried under Gambian Laws as an aggravated homosexual. On March 5th, 2014 I was granted bail and released. Court date was set March 17th, 2014 for an extradition hearing and consolidation of charges.

On March 17th 2014 I absconded. I skipped bail for my safety rather than face life imprisonment in Gambia. I went into hiding – running to safety.

Anti-gay and lesbian legislations in both Gambia and Nigeria violate my fundamental human rights – among them the right to privacy, to freedom from discrimination, from arbitrary arrest and detention. It adds to the stigma, hate and death threats I face every day just because I am different. I believe governments have a sacred duty to protect people from prejudice, not to add to it.

My name is David Berihun Kohen and that was my story. A story of systemic persecution, of mistreatment, sufferings, harassment, fear, isolation and imprisonment just because I am different.