The day a grenade exploded at my feet should have scared me. Instead, it made me more determined. One life lost cannot erase the memory of 40,000 who per-ished during the dictatorship of president Hissene Habre in Chad. Whether it was me or someone else, I knew that one day those who were stolen from their families, tortured and beaten, would see justice.
From 1982 until 1990, Habre ruled my country of birth, Chad, after coming to power through a military coup. Through fear and intim-idation, assisted by his secret police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), he rounded up thousands of citi-zens, many of whom were then killed or “disappeared,” until he was deposed by another coup and exiled to Senegal. It would take nearly 30 years be-fore he was brought to trial.
But this story isn’t about him. It’s about the victims of his atrocities, the survivors, as well as the families they left behind. As an attorney for the Association Tchadienne pour la Protection des Droits de l’Homme (Chadian Asso-ciation for the Protection of Human Rights), I, and other organisations and individu-als, have spent the past 17 years pushing to have these victims acknowledged and paid reparations. And while there have been small victories along the way, and one major victory last year — Habre was found guilty by the Extraor-dinary African Chambers of Senegal and sentenced to life in prison for murder, torture, rape and crimes against hu-manity — it’s not enough to bring closure for the people I represent.
It is not enough for Cle-ment Abaifouta, a 23-year-old student who had just won a. scholarship to study in Ger-many when he was arrested and jailed for four years, dur-ing which time he was forced to dig the mass graves of those with whom he was impris-oned.
Nor is it enough for Souley-mane Guengueng, who, as one of the leaders of the victims’ campaign, was jailed at the famous “La Piscine” (swim-ming pool), which had been transformed into tiny cement cellblocks. Prisoners would. remain crushed together, suf-focating in the heat, endur-ing the stench of rotting bod-ies and bodily waste. Guen-gueng nearly died there after he stopped breathing three times.
There are the women who were raped by Habre and others, occasionally impreg-nated, giving birth to babies who didn’t survive the hor-rible conditions. There were those whose torture included lassoing their hands and feet behind them until their limbs would become paralysed from lack of circulation. Or those who had two wooden boards tied around their skulls then slowly tightened until they gave the answers that the po-lice wanted.
Thankfully, I didn’t lose my life that day in Chad when the grenade exploded. After years of fighting in local courts, threats and acts of violence to try to silence me, Habre’s accomplices from the DDS were imprisoned and forced to pay victims for their crimes. Intim-idation will not hold me back. The fight is now focused on reparations for the victims.
Reparations for war crimes is not a new concept. After both World Wars, the Allied Forces claimed reparations. The United States compen-sated victims of Japanese in-ternment camps under the Civil Liberties Act signed by then president Ronald Rea-gan. Most recently, the Inter-national Criminal Court in The Hague, in a landmark de-cision, awarded its first case of reparations to victims of former Congolese militia lead-er Germain Katanga.
After the atrocities he com-mitted, Habre spent years liv-ing off the money he stole from the government. That money belongs to the victims in Chad. A decision on Habre’s appeal was given on Thursday, keep-ing in place a life sentence and establishing a trust fund for the victims.
The reparations are the final acknowledgement of a wrongdoing. They affirm that the suffering and loss of victims’ lives stood for some-thing. They serve as a warn-ing shot against impunity. Ac-countability and transparency are what deter those in power. We have taken the first step, by hearing victims’ voices in a public court, as well as those responsible. But this journey to justice is not finished. We need to support the Af-rican Union’s work on transi-tional justice as it continues to develop a policy framework and establish its own system of reparations. We need to re-mind perpetrators of the price to be paid for committing atrocities.