A month ago on Thursday, time stopped for me. I will forever remember the intense emotion I felt when the man who had ruled my country with a bloody fist stood a few yards away from us. The feeling that bonded us all that day in Dakar — widows and survivors of Hissène Habré’s regime — was indescribable. Finally, we were beginning to experience the justice that we had awaited for so long.
After 25 years, Habré, Chad’s former dictator, is in the dock at the Extraordinary African Chambers created by Senegal and the African Union. I have wanted to write these words since God allowed me to recover my freedom after 2½ years in the desolate dungeons that were Habré’s jails. I have no idea why my life was spared when so many others died of malnutrition, neglect and torture. From the depths of that madness, I swore to God that if I came out alive, I would dedicate my life to the battle for justice.
Today, the once-almighty Hissène Habré, whose government was alleged by a Commission of Inquiry to have been behind an estimated 40,000 politically motivated killings and the torture of tens of thousands more, is being held accountable for his actions.
I remember very well the day 25 years ago when my cousin, also in jail, told me that Habré had fled Chad, and that we were now free. I thought he was delirious! After all, we all thought the dictator was unbeatable. Yet soon, like hundreds of others, we were finally free.
But securing our own freedom didn’t feel like enough, so we formed an association of victims and demanded justice. Despite the many difficulties we faced, and with the help of international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and our courageous lawyer, Jacqueline Moudeina, who survived an assassination attempt, we never abandoned our long fight. It was a struggle that Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously described as an “interminable legal and political soap opera.”
Decades later, justice is finally catching up with Habré. Yet he has failed to take responsibility for what his regime did. Indeed, he has underscored his cowardice by playing the only card left, that of the victim. During the first two days of the trial, Habré appeared in a white boubou, turbaned from head to toe, revealing only his eyes, which he kept shut. He prevented his lawyers from appearing in the courtroom, their role being instead to perpetuate conspiracy theories about “imperialism” in the corridors of the Dakar courthouse.
As if my struggle was about geopolitics! In order to respect Senegalese procedure and international law, the court refused to allow the trial to go forward in the absence of counsel and appointed three lawyers to defend Habré, granting a 45-day adjournment so they could prepare the case.
But as one of the many genuine victims, I can say confidently that we never wanted to use this trial as a way of rushing toward revenge. Instead, we believe it is essential the trial meet the highest standards of impartiality; that will be the best way to honor African justice and inspire others whose rights are being scorned. So this trial must be fair not only for us, but also for Habré, so it can set an example.
We waited 25 years to see Hissène Habré in court. Waiting 45 days more to ensure that he receives a fair trial will not hinder our determination nor keep us from our long march toward justice. And even if he continues to deny his past, we, the victims, will be present on September 7 when the trial resumes to act as reminders that we are still here. “Are you frightened of us, Mr. Habré?” I asked in an open letter a few weeks ago. His silence as he faces justice speaks volumes.
But even before the trial resumes, just knowing that this dictator is going to face trial is already offering hope in the fight for change by showing victims of injustice everywhere that they should not be afraid to confront their dishonest and violent leaders.
It is, of course, not possible to say for sure how many Chadians lost a father, a mother, brothers and sisters to Habré’s regime. And time will never completely heal the wounds opened by brutality and arbitrary brutality. But this trial shows that although justice can take time, it will come — and will allow us to recover our dignity.
Souleymane Guengueng is the founder of the Association of Victims of Crimes of the Hissène Habré Regime. The views expressed are the writer’s own.