For much of the past year and a half, Juka Ceesay has wondered if her brother was alive or dead.
Alhagie Mamut Ceesay, a 39-year-old father of two, and his friend went to their native Gambia in May 2013 to look into investing in a cashew exporting business. A month later, both men had disappeared, and his family fears they were captured by government officials at the behest of the west African country's dictator, Yahya Jammeh, who has a rather lax approach to basic human rights.
To give you a sense of what kind of guy Jammeh is, he's not just satisfied with imprisoning journalists and critics. In 2009, he ordered a literal witch-hunt -- as in a bunch of so-called "witch doctors" backed by military forces kidnapped 1,000 people from villages throughout the country, threw them in prisons, and forced them to drink "hallucinogenic concoctions," and many were beaten until they confessed to being witches, according to Amnesty International. He has also vowed to behead all gay people in Gambia.
Alas, there's no evidence Alhagie (pronounced A-la-jee) and his friend Ebou Jobe, of Long Island, were going to Gambia to foment insurrection or hone their witchcraft, which is why their disappearance is so puzzling. (Juka says the men planned on staying in Gambia for three months; Ceesay ultimately wanted to move his family to Gambia for good).
Ceesay had lived in Houston for 12 years, where he worked as an "infrastructure systems analyst for Chevron and Texaco," according to the HuffingtonPost, which seems to be the only U.S. outlet covering the story. Jobe, "a father of three, was an operations manager at Walmart," according to the story. (Jobe, 41, lived in Long Island).
Ceesay comes from a family of entrepreneurs, according to Juka, who says her brother also drove an ice cream truck at night and ran a tire shop. So branching out into importing and exporting nuts wasn't a huge shock. He hoped to use profits from the venture to start a school for computer literacy, Juka says from her home in Los Angeles.
"His heart was in Africa, to help rebuild where he came from by going back and investing and [living] in the community," Juka told the Press.
Ceesay kept in touch with his wife, Ndeye Kane, and 5-year-old son Ebrahim via cell phone and Skype in the month before he disappeared, and did not relay any concerns or signs of trouble. Then, in June, the office space Ceesay and Jobe rented was completely cleaned out, and the friends' rented truck had vanished.
The circumstances around their disappearance are vague, but Juka says her family believes someone with a grudge may have told government officials the men were in the country for nefarious purposes. (The lack of information has spurred many unconfirmed reports, like this Gambian newspaper's claim that both men have been executed).
"Somebody gave the wrong signal to that government about my brother and his friend, and that's why they were captured," Juka says.
Unfortunately, she says, U.S. officials haven't offered much help. She says that multiple messages left for Jack Markey, division chief of the State Department's Office of American Citizens Services, went unanswered. And Juka says that when she finally got him on the phone, about two weeks ago, Markey told her "we are not magicians" and couldn't do much to help. (It's actually a good thing Markey and his staff are not magicians, otherwise Jammeh might sic his witch doctors on them, too).
"I felt like that was very hurtful," Juka says. "....For me to talk to him for the first time and to hear something like that from him, that was really really disappointing."
Because of this perceived lack of interest, Juka says that "Sometimes we wonder as a family, if Alhagie was a different color, if it [would] make any difference for his case. If he wasn't originally from Gambia, even though he swore to be an American citizen, paid his taxes, did everything right -- if it [would] be different."
After Juka wrote a letter of complaint, she heard from another Department official, Steve Donlon. Ceesay provided an email from Donlon that stated he was working with colleagues "within and outside the Department of State in the hope we can develop a coordinated strategy to better engage The Gambian government on locating the whereabouts of your brother...and his traveling companion."
That conflicts with what a State Department official told us when we asked what, if anything, officials were doing to locate the men and return them to their families.
An emailed statement we were told to attribute to "a State Department official on background" said only: "Questions regarding the investigation should be directed to Gambian authorities. Due to privacy considerations, we are not able to provide more information at this time."
We were also told that "For missing person cases in The Gambia, local law enforcement institutions generally have jurisdiction and play the lead role in the conduct of investigations. We work closely with Gambian authorities to monitor such cases and seek progress as quickly as possible...."
That's right -- the State Department's official word is that it's leaving the investigation in the hands of a dictator with a history of human rights abuses. And he's the dude we're supposed to direct our questions to.
As James Moore wrote for the HuffPo:
Gambia's dictator, Yahya Jammeh, has shown public disdain for the U.S. and the West and has previously detained, without charges, other naturalized Americans from The Gambia. Texan Hassan Touray, who had established a digital identification software company in his homeland, was held at the oppressive Mile Two prison where as many as 20 inmates are often confined in a single 8 foot by 10 foot cell with no toilet. Detainees released under international pressure have reported being forced to eat cornmeal with sand and witness deaths from malnutrition and disease. There are not believed to be any doctors on site at the prison. Touray was released when the U.S. placed diplomatic pressure on Jammeh after the technologist's plight was published in The Huffington Post.
Juka says she hasn't received much help from the offices of U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz . She says she hit a brick wall with the former and hasn't heard back from a case worker at the latter's office.
Juka says she spoke with Tonya Williams at Jackson Lee's office, so that's who we called. She has not returned our calls.
When we called Michael Ivy, Juka's contact at Cruz's office, Ivy told us he'd done his job -- he passed along Juka's message to Cruz's immigration liaison, Melissa Miller. Juka has yet to hear from Miller. But, hey, at least a message was passed, which is just the sort of thing panicked family members want to hear in a time of crisis.
It's been especially hard on Ceesay's son, Ebrahim. Juka says her nephew sometimes pretends to talk to his dad on the phone. Ceesay's wife says Ebrahim often asks why his dad doesn't call anymore. Ceesay is never far from Ebrahim's mind; when he dressed up as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle for Halloween, the boy insisted on sending a pic to his dad.
Meanwhile, Juka has launched a social media campaign to spread awareness of her brother's and Jobe's disappearance and to drum up media interest.
Because she's had some public relations experience, the role of family spokesperson defaulted to Juka. While she runs an organic African food and beauty products import business, she feels like she has more time to devote to the cause than her siblings, who have children. Still, the last year and a half has taken a toll, and there is no rulebook for what to do when a loved one goes missing in another country.
"You just don't know what to do, you know?"Juka says. "...You improvise every day -- you wake up, you know, you have to give two hours of your life to him. If not, you don't feel right."
She adds, "Your life is not the same anymore. It's not. Because if somebody dies, you know how to deal with....If somebody is missing, you cannot grieve and let it go."
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.