Abdul Rahman Gassama

Interpreter at the Special Court for Sierra Leone

*23 September 1976
Pujehun, Sierra Leone

Abdul Rahman Gassama attended D.E.C. Primary School in Puehun. He was a student at Ahmadiyya Muslim Secondary School in Bo where he sat for his ‘O' and ‘A' levels exams. When he completed his secondary school studies, he worked for Actions Contre La Faim, an international NGO for two and half years. In October 2000, he joined Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone and studied political science, history, philosophy and linguistics. He registered for a course in linguistics and graduated with a BA Honours, Upper Second Class in 2004.

Abdul Rahman Gassama was contacted by the Head of the Department of Linguistics, the late Mr. Victor Fashole Luke about a SCSL advert for interpreters and translators. He applied for the post, underwent training and was eventually recruited as an interpreter. Dr. Rebecca Ehret was the Head of the Interpretation/Translation Unit, which was directly under Court Management Section. She was later replaced by Mr. Brima Kelson Sesay. During the training, trainers and facilitators were invited from the ICC, ICTY and other international tribunals. He had a broad language combination including Krio, Mende, Mandingo(normal), Karene Mandingo, Gambian Mandingo, Liberian English and standard English. He covered all the cases heard before the SCSL including those against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), as well as the Charles Taylor trial held in the Hague, Netherlands. He also did voice overs for the Public Affairs Unit for broadcast on national and local radio and TV stations.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Abdul Rahman Gassama as a court interpreter. He was a victim of the war; his father and other relatives were killed by RUF rebels. However, these tragic events did not impinge on his professionalism. It was sometimes traumatic listening to witness testimonies; it rekindled memories of the war. He recalls declining to interpret for a particular witness because he was once his victim and did not want to compromise his professionalism.

Since he spoke more languages than his colleagues, during the initial stages of individual trials, there were times he had to cover four languages; Mandingo (normal), Karene Mandingo, Gambian Mandingo and Liberian English, work that should have been done by 4 people. The amount of pressure involved in switching microphones and channels was huge, not to mention that when his voice was broadcast during interpreting, the public mistook him for a witness! Towards the end of 2016, he was contracted by the ICC to interpret Liberian English and standard English during the Laurent Gbagbo and Blé Goudé cases. The workload was enormous given the scarcity of interpreters proficient in these languages.

Abdul Rahman Gassama returned to Sierra Leone at the end of his contract when the Charles Taylor trial closed. To date, he does not feel safe visiting some parts of the country or actively participating in political or public gatherings. He opted for a more private life working for the National Commission for Democracy. The trauma and challenges he faced are part of the sacrifice he made to stand for international justice.