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‘I told my story face to face with Habré’: courageous rape survivors make history

At night, Chad’s dictator would sit at his desk, smoking and watching as his agents tortured Khadidja Zidane. Hissène Habré did not know Zidane, an illiterate, poor woman. When he had had enough of watching, he would send her away, then have her brought back in the early hours of the morning to rape her.

For three decades, Zidane told no one. For the raped, tortured and starved women lucky enough to get out of Habré’s secret jails alive, the guards had a very effective way of ensuring their silence: they threatened to bring them back.

Zidane hid what Habré had done to her from her family, her friends, even her lawyers as they prepared for the trial of the former president for crimes against humanity in Senegal.

She was terrified of Habré’s long arm, even 25 years after he had fled the country.

'I told my story face to face with Habré': courageous rape survivors make history
‘I told my story face to face with Habré’: courageous rape survivors make history

“Nobody could guarantee my security,” she says, wrapped in a red shawl, sitting on a mat in the best room of her home in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. “From the very beginning, I said I’d only tell my story when I was face to face with Hissène Habré. Then I’ll have a story to tell, I said.”

The story Zidane held back for so long was crucial. Because of her testimony, Habré became the first head of state to be personally convicted of rape.

The dictator was convicted in May of crimes against humanity and other crimes at a special court set up by the African Union and the government of Senegal, where he had been living for 22 years in exile. A Chadian commission of inquiry showed that 40,000 people were killed and 54,000 imprisoned during his eight-year rule.

Habré almost got away with rape and sexual slavery, though. The charges were not even listed on the original charge sheet. Until they were sure the much-delayed trial was really happening, victims of sexual crimes kept quiet.

“Hissène Habré jailed me, jailed my mother, jailed my brother, killed my mother and brother, and tortured me – and the scars are all over my body. And then, on top of that, he raped me four times. Four times,” says Zidane.

She still lives in the compound where she was arrested, along with her extended family.

“As soon as I saw Hissène Habré and our eyes met, everything he did to me came back. I just started telling it. Allah is my witness, even now when I think about it, my heart breaks. Even as I talk to you, the images of what he did to me come back.”

‘They pushed me to the floor’
Zidane’s family are Chadians of Libyan origin. When she was arrested, she was told her brother had joined the Libyan air force and attacked Chad. Habré’s secret police took her to a room in the presidency with a hole in the ceiling, and said her brother had been imprisoned there and had escaped. They wanted to know how he’d done it.

When she said she had heard nothing from her brother for a long time, they didn’t believe her.

“They pushed me on to the floor and forced a pipe into my mouth. They started pumping water into me. They put a tyre on my stomach and pressed down. That was the first time. As I told them in Dakar, Hissène Habré did unspeakable things to me. He would torture me before he raped me.”

This water torture was one of many techniques used by the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS), Habré’s notorious secret police.

“My whole body is marked – look,” she says, showing where she had been electrocuted under her arms. “Look,” taking off her headscarf and exposing her neck, “they strangled me with a rope. Look,” bending down to show where they had electrocuted her on her head, her scalp scarred under greying hair. “I was struggling with Habré when he stabbed me here with a pen,” she says, pointing at her groin. “I told the court that. Someone who disrespects you like that.”

On his website, Habré called Zidane a “nymphomaniac prostitute” after hearing her testimony.

However, the extraordinary African chambers – the tribunal set up to try Habré – changed the charges at the last minute and convicted Habré of rape, based on her account.

The verdict sets a precedent. It represents “a huge brick in the wall that establishes sexual violence as international crimes”, says Kim Thuy Seelinger, director of the sexual violence programme at Berkeley Law’s Human Rights Centre in the US. It builds on the tribunals in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and will make a huge contribution to the jurisprudence that any future tribunal dealing with sexual violence as a crime against humanity will be able to draw on, she says.

“It’s pretty amazing, honestly, that this small court with so few resources and such limited time was able to pound out this type of very progressive and clear jurisprudence on sexual violence. It’s a huge testament to the victims who were willing to come forward after so much time, the lawyers for those victims, and the African community that helped make the court happen.”

A weapon to inspire terror
Zidane was the only person to testify that she was raped by Habré. Rape, however, was widely used as a weapon by the military and police, to sow terror in women, children as young as seven and, in some cases, men.

Ginette Ngarbaye was doing the laundry at home with her cousin when an acquaintance came by the house on his motorbike. He said her aunt had asked him to come and pick her up.

“Since I was innocent, I didn’t have anything to fear,” says Ngarbaye, now secretary of the victims’ association, sitting in the organisation’s tumbledown headquarters, a few faded printouts of victims taped to the wall behind her. “My cousin said: ‘Today, it’s your turn’. I said: ‘My turn for what?’”

The 19-year-old, who was pregnant, was led through a compound full of soldiers. She was at the DDS headquarters.

“In the office I met a huge, burly man dressed in a white, short-sleeved shirt. It had blood all over it. I immediately knew he was a torturer, and it was then that I remembered what my cousin had said.”

On the files all over his desk, she saw names she knew – names of girls who had disappeared. She and these girls were accused of going to a restaurant frequented by Habré’s opponents.

“He called two agents in uniform and they took me into a torture chamber, full of contraptions.”

Ngarbaye begins to cry, wiping her face with her yellow wrap. “They arrest you and tell you not to talk, so it feels good to say it. It’s healing.”

The uniformed men took her to a women’s cell, where a fellow prisoner told her not to confess anything.

Two days later, they came back for her, and took her to the man in the bloodied shirt. “That day and every evening for a week he tortured me and raped me. I asked: ‘When will you let me go?’ He said: ‘When I am satisfied.’ It’s their way of breaking you. And even as they’re raping you, they’re insulting you, and beating you, kicking you.”

After a week her torturer and rapist, who she later learned was Issa Arawaï, moved on to other girls. But she stayed in jail, in terrible conditions, for two years – fed millet mixed with dirt, rust and occasionally rotten fish, unable to wash, surrounded by dying women. She delivered her daughter in the prison.

After she got out, Ngarbaye often saw Arawaï, speeding around N’Djamena in his car. Later, under president Idriss Déby, he was jailed and tortured himself, and eventually died. But she did not see Habré until the day she testified.

“He was sitting there, jogging his foot up and down,” she says. “He pretended to adjust his turban, and looked at me out of the corner of his eye. When I saw him, I was looking at a monster. It was like looking at a man who has massacred all his children. I tried hard to talk, but I really wanted to jump on him and bite him, tear him apart. We lost a lot of good people in this country because of Hissène Habré.”

Officials of the regime kept meticulous records, and thousands of documents were strewn across the DDS headquarters after Habré was deposed. Gathered by Human Rights Watch, they show that the DDS answered directly to Habré. He personally gave orders and signed death warrants.

At his trial, Habré’s tactic was not to defend himself, but rather, following a path well-trodden by dictators, to refuse to recognise the authority of the court. He was dragged in on the first day, and thereafter sat in white robes, a turban and dark glasses, the only visible part of his face wearing an expression of contempt. His lawyers say they will appeal against the verdict, although it is not clear whether he has approved this, as it would entail recognising the court.

Taking the stand
It was only when they were sure that Habré would be tried that the women were persuaded to speak about the rapes by Jacqueline Moudeïna, a Chadian lawyer who has worked since 2000 to bring Habré to justice.

“It was long and patient work,” Moudeïna says. “It was only in 2013 that one of the women drew a picture for me so I’d understand that she’d been raped and that all of the women in the DDS prisons had been raped.

“It was really only a few days before their depositions before the court that I was really able to convince them to speak – open their hearts and say what happened to them. There was a problem of trust, of course, and particularly the taboo that surrounds rape in Chad. Because I’d been working with them for a long time, I was able to explain it to them. That is what enabled them to break the taboo, to break the silence.”

Those who heard the women’s testimonies said they were impossible for the Burkinabe judge, Gberdao Kam, to ignore. But the fact that he changed the charges was also thanks to a brief that Seelinger and colleagues submitted to the court, signed by experts on sexual violence as an international crime. This gave Kam a blueprint for how he could charge Habré for rape as a crime against humanity, both in terms of customary international law and under the statute the court was using.

“It went from a case where there was zero sexual violence in the charging recommended by the investigating judges to a verdict that was really heavy with sexual violence,” Seelinger says. “It’s great, it’s astounding, and it’s quite dramatic in terms of international jurisprudence.”

Moudeïna says the verdict could protect other women, and she has been contacted by groups across Africa inspired to bring perpetrators to justice. Her focus, though, remains Chad where, even with Habré long gone, the number of rapes has risen sharply in recent years.

“Now, perhaps, rape survivors will have the courage to speak so that their rapists will be prosecuted. Every woman can take advantage of this trial and verdict,” Moudeïna says. “I have a whole action plan that I’m trying to raise money for, to go around the country working to raise awareness of local officials, judges, magistrates, and to get women to talk about what happened to them and then to provide them with assistance.”

Not all those who were abused got the chance to testify at the trial, which cost $10m, or £7.5m (the 2016 budget of the international criminal court is €139.5m – £118m).

One of those who didn’t was Rachelle Mouaba, who was 18 when her father, a military police commander, resigned over the arrests and torture. This was taken “very, very badly” by the regime, Mouaba said, and soldiers arrived at the family home.

Her father was beaten, taken to a local school and killed. The soldiers then returned to Mouaba’s house.

“I was sitting in my bedroom and I saw the door open,” she says quietly as she sits on her verandah, chickens squawking in the yard. “I saw four or five soldiers. One came to me and the others followed and threw me on the floor. They held my arms and legs and one of them got on top of me. I had never been with a man – I didn’t know what was happening. That’s how one of them raped me. They had a gun to my head. I couldn’t fathom what was going on.”

Mouaba was severely traumatised and failed her baccalaureate at school. But she forced herself to complete her education, paying her way by selling soft drinks. She worked hard and managed to save up enough money to buy a small house.

Since the trial, however, strangers have come around claiming that her house belongs to them, and tried to throw her out. She has gone to court to keep the little she has managed to rebuild, but feels sure that it is Habré’s people trying to punish her.

Habré’s legacy continues

army chief, kept many of Habré’s officials in his government, including torturers from the DDS. Some of those still in senior positions in the government were arrested as late as 2014, and convicted in an N’Djamena trial that concluded shortly before Habré’s started. His supporters still abound in Chad.

Zidane said that, since telling her story, she has been threatened with death, physically attacked by strangers in the street, and abused in her own home. “When I came back from Dakar, people came to my house and insulted me and shouted: ‘Whore. You went to Dakar to testify. Something will happen to you this year. We’ll do something to you’,” she says.

One said to her: “What would Habré want with an ugly woman like you?” and slapped her.

She says that, two days before our interview, a man ripped off her veil in the street and told her she would die this year. Zidane is defiant – she will not keep quiet any longer. “The whole thing is because I went and told the truth. Why shouldn’t I tell the truth? I have every right. An injustice has been done to me. I was not alone. Hissène Habré destroyed all of us. I don’t have anything to lose. I have to speak. I don’t care.”

The effect of the rapes on the women’s lives has been devastating. When she came out of jail, Zidane’s husband left her. Ngarbaye’s fiance left her too. Mouaba went from relative wealth to poverty in a week. They were treated with suspicion by their friends, and even their families: anyone who had been in the DDS headquarters was thought to be a spy.

Habré’s victims have had little psychological or physical support. “We don’t really have specialised treatment in Chad, so it’s more a question of getting compensation,” Moudeïna says.

Although Habré took $12m from the national bank accounts with him when he left Chad, the only assets frozen by the Senegalese government were a property worth about €600,000 and two small bank accounts not containing more than $5,000.

The court has ordered him to pay millions of dollars in compensation to more than 4,000 victims who registered as civil parties – much less than the $250m their lawyers asked for. Each victim should receive up to $34,000. The victims hope to use Kam’s order to put pressure on governments to seize Habré’s other assets.

Campaigning groups have urged the international community not to abandon his victims, and pay money into a fund for them in case the amount recovered from Habré does not cover the compensation ordered. Moudeïna says members of the public wishing to donate can contact her.

Campaigners are also owed $129m that the Chadian government was ordered to pay victims after the N’Djamena trial. Déby’s government, however, has not set up a commission to deal with it – nor has the president said a word.

Zidane and other survivors are still in physical pain as a result of the torture, and need medical attention they cannot afford. She, who like most of the other victims, has very little money to live on.

Zidane says Habré’s life sentence will never be a fair punishment for the crimes he committed against her and her fellow prisoners. “I will die dissatisfied,” she says.

“He’s been jailed, but when we were in jail, we slept on the bare floor, we had no mats – we didn’t even have cardboard. Hissène Habré dresses in a pristine white robe. He wears glasses. He eats fish. He eats chicken.

“He would tie our hands behind our backs and torture us, sit and watch,” she continues. “And after all that, he’s in an air-conditioned prison cell. Were we treated like that? As long as he’s not tortured, given electric shocks, dressed in dirty clothes, I won’t be satisfied.

“All I have to look forward to is death. I have no future – look at me. My life has been destroyed. What can I expect from life?

“But at least I was able to face him. If I die today, I’ll die in peace. I had the opportunity to tell the whole world what he did to me. Thank Allah for that. He’ll pay in the afterlife for what he did. I’m happy for that.”

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