Survivors of atrocities under Hissène Habré waited decades to bring the former dictator of the north-central African nation of Chad to justice.
That day finally came on Monday. A special tribunal in Senegal sentenced Habré to life in prison for war crimes, crimes against humanity, rape, kidnapping and sexual slavery.
Since his ouster in 1990, torture survivors collected testimonies and documented the atrocities of the former U.S. ally, who came to power in a CIA-backed coup in 1982. In secret and public, victims’ groups built a case against a dictator whose regime is believed to have killed over 40,000 people.
Over 4,000 victims brought the case against him. Nearly 100 people testified at the African Union-sponsored court in the West African nation of Senegal, while the 73-year-old despot looked on in silence, refusing to mount a defense.
“Never in a trial for mass crimes have the victims’ voices been so dominant,” international justice expert Thierry Cruvellier wrote in The New York Times this year.
They erupted in celebration when Habré was finally found guilty.
“Unlike allegations of ‘victors’ justice’, this case was one of victims’ justice,” said Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, senior researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies this week. “The long drawn-out process to bring Habré to justice demonstrated the tenacity and determination of victims in the face of great resistance.”
These are the stories of the victims’ advocates who gathered evidence against their tormentor, and the lawyers who pursued the case despite threats to their lives.
In 1988, Habré’s secret police accused Souleymane Guengueng, an accountant working in water resource management, of being a traitor against the regime.
Guengueng disappeared into the labyrinth of Chad’s jails for two and a half years. He was held in isolation and then in cells overflowing with inmates. The corpses of prisoners who had succumbed to torture and disease also lay strewn around in the prison. Guengueng was subjected to long stretches of total darkness, or unceasing light. Once, prison guards strung him up by his testicles. The torture left him barely able to see or walk.
When Habré was overthrown in 1990, Guengueng walked free, determined to put the dictator behind bars.
“From the depths of my cell, from the depths of that madness, I took an oath before God that if I got out alive, I would fight for justice,” said Guengueng, now 67, in his testimony at Habré’s trial last November. “ I am convinced that if God allowed me to remain alive, it was to carry out this mission, in memory of those who died and disappeared. And most of all, to prevent this from happening again.”
He began persuading other victims of Habré’s regime to give their accounts -- stories of torture and imprisonment, or of loved ones who vanished without trace. With fellow ex-prisoners, he founded a local group, the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime. They were determined to achieve the huge ambition of bringing a despot to justice.
But Habré was living in comfortable exile in Senegal by then. He still had henchmen in positions of power inside Chad and they sent Guengueng death threats. So Guengueng stashed his stacks of testimonies, numbering nearly 800, in a hiding place for several years.
Human rights advocates later smuggled the testimonies out of the country. They formed the backbone of the case against Habré. In 2000, Guengueng, along with Human Rights Watch’s Reed Brody and other rights advocates filed a case against Habré in Senegal. They also filed a case against Habré’s cronies in Chad, which cost Guengueng his job and ultimately forced him to flee to the U.S. But he now, finally, he has got the justice he'd sought since he walked out of prison over 25 years ago.
"This is a victory, because who could believe that Habré, who was seen like an untouchable God in Chad, could be judged?” he told Justice Hub, an international justice website, after the verdict against Habré. “The trial serves as a lesson for other dictators, for all those in power, especially in Africa, to no longer commit the crimes that their predecessors did.”
After Guengueng was forced into exile, Clément Abaifouta became head of Chad’s victim’s association, supporting survivors of Habré’s regime through the trial.
In 1985, Abaifouta was preparing to take up a scholarship to study in Germany when Habré’s secret police arrested him. Abaifouta, then 23 years old, demanded to speak to the president to find out why he was being detained. The request went nowhere, but Abaifouta vowed he would one day get an answer from Habré.
Abaifouta spent over four years inside Habré’s detention centers and was assigned the most gruesome of jobs: prison grave digger. Every day, he buried fellow inmates who had been executed or succumbed to disease in mass graves outside the capital. Abaifouta estimates that he buried hundreds, possibly up to 1,000, prisoners during this time, including some of his friends.
After he left jail in 1989, Abaifouta couldn’t shake off the horror of the mass graves. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder. “For my four years of detention, I did not exist. I was like a tiny coin, buried in a hole,” he told The Guardian. “I was a victim of a system that has broken my life.”
Abaifouta became a crucial witness to Chad’s inquiry into the abuses of the Habré regime, as he was able to point out the location of the mass graves. He met Guengueng at the inquiry and joined the effort to document the regime’s atrocities. Abaifouta even named his family’s pet dog after the International Criminal Court.
Abaifouta, now aged 55, was jubilant when Habre’s verdict was announced, leaping up and down and shouting, “Vive la victoire!” "There must not be any more leaders like Hissene Habré in Africa or elsewhere,” Abaifouta told The Associated Press. “I must say, here in Africa and elsewhere, never again.”
Jacqueline Moudeina and Delphine Djiraibe
Two of Chad’s first-ever female lawyers played a major role in bringing Habré to justice.
Jacqueline Moudeina fled Chad before Habré took power. As she watched the bloodshed taking place under his rule from afar, she decided to study law while in exile in Congo. “Something needed to be done,” she recalls feeling after learning of one massacre.
Moudeina returned to Chad after Habré’s ouster, and devoted herself to human rights cases, including representing the victims pursuing justice the ex-leader.
“Many people still don’t understand why they were thrown in jail or tortured,” she told The New York Times. “They want to find a reason for all the suffering.”
Delphine Djiraibe also returned to Chad after Habré was overthrown, having studied law in Congo. She founded the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, which Moudeina later headed. The two women worked together on bringing a case against Habré on behalf of his victims.
It was still dangerous work, even with Habré out of power. Moudeina became a target after she helped file cases against Habré and his henchmen in Senegal and Chad in 2000. She was followed, her office was looted and she started receiving threatening calls. “Different voices were telling me, drop those cases if you want to live,” she told the Times.
At a protest against electoral fraud in Chad’s capital in 2001, Moudeina heard her name called, and then felt a blast. Someone had thrown a grenade at her feet. She believes a police commander, who has been a prison guard under Habré and was implicated in her case, ordered her assassination.
Moudeina was severely injured and spent over a year recovering in France. She still has shrapnel lodged in her body, and has a painful limp.
Two decades of work and danger finally paid off when first Chad, and then Senegal, tried Habré.
“For those of us who are from Chad, this is the end of a nightmare, because for more than 20 years we have been rubbing shoulders daily with our torturers without having the slightest certainty that they would be prosecuted, as many of them still occupy influential positions, making them very dangerous both for the victims and for those who accompany them,” she wrote ahead of the trial in Senegal.
Moudeina and Djiraibe embraced in the courtroom as Habré was found guilty on Monday. “Today marks the end of the victims' relentless search for justice,” Moudeina told reporters after the verdict. "It is a great joy for the victims and for Africa because we are sending a strong message to tyrants all over the world.