Hissene Habre, the brutal former dictator of Chad, became the first Head of State to be convicted of rape, and that was based on the testimony of Khadidja Zidane, a poor, illiterate woman who feared Habre even after he fled the country 25 years ago.
Habre was given a life sentence in May 2017 of crimes against humanity and other crimes at a special court set up by the African Union and the Government of Senegal, where he lived for 22 years in exile.
The rape and sexual slavery charges were not even listed on the original charge sheet, and victims refused to come forward until they were sure that the trial would actually take place.
The Extraordinary African Chambers, as the tribunal was called, changed the charges at the last minute and convicted Habre of rape.
“Nobody could guarantee my security,” Zidane said from her home in the Chadian capital, where she lives with her extended family.
Habre was given a life sentence in May 2017 of crimes against humanity and other crimes at a special court set up by the African Union and the Government of Senegal, where he lived for 22 years in exile
“From the very beginning, I said I’d only tell my story when I was face to face with Hissene Habre. Then I’ll have a story to tell, I said.”
She was arrested by the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS), Habre’s dreaded Secret Police, as her family are Chadians of Libyan origin.
At the time, Libya supported rebels fighting Habre’s regime.
“My whole body is marked – look,” she said, showing where she had been electrocuted under her arms.
“Look,” taking off her headscarf and exposing her neck.
“They strangled me with a rope. I was struggling with Habre when he stabbed me here with a pen,” she said, pointing at her groin.
“I told the court that. Someone, who disrespects you like that.”
Zidane’s mother and brother died in Habre’s jails.
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.
At night, he would sit at his desk, smoking and watch as his men tortured Zidane, someone he didn’t know personally. Put back into her cell, the exhausted, starving woman would be recalled early in the morning so that he could rape her.
Habre watched court proceedings with the greatest contempt and called Zidane a “nymphomaniac prostitute” on his website.
According to Kim Thuy Seelinger, Director of the Sexual Violence Programme at Berkeley Law’s Human Rights Centre in the US, the verdict represented a “huge brick in the wall that establishes sexual violence as international crimes.”
He adds that it built on the tribunals in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and would make a huge contribution to the jurisprudence that any future tribunal dealing with sexual violence as a crime against humanity would be able to draw on.
After Habre’s regime was overthrown, his Chief of Staff Deby became ruler of Chad.
He kept many of Habre’s henchmen in his administration, including DDS torturers.
Some were in senior positions and were arrested only in 2014, and convicted in N’Djamena before Habre’s trial started.
Many of his supporters are still moving about and working in Chad.
Zidane says that, after she came out with her story, she has received death threats, faced physical violence in the streets and abused in her own home. She says:
“When I came back from Dakar, people came to my house and shouted, ‘Whore, you went to Dakar to testify. Something will happen to you this year. We’ll do something to you.”
One said: “What would Habre want with an ugly woman like you, and slapped me.” But she is defiant and says she will not be intimidated. Her life has already been badly disrupted by her arrest and its consequences.
When she was finally let out of jail, her husband left her.
This has been the fate of other women, too, who faced jail, torture and rape during Habre’s time. Another victim called Ngarbaye was deserted by her fiancé. Another called Mouaba, relatively wealthy before her incarceration, was reduced to poverty in a week.
They were treated as spies by friends and even families as anyone arrested by the DDS was thought of as a spy.
Habre took 12 million US dollars from the national bank accounts when he fled Chad. The Senagalese Government froze a property worth about a million dollars and two small bank accounts containing just $5,000. Nothing else has been recovered.
The court has ordered Habre to pay millions of dollars in compensation to more than 4,000 victims who registered as civil parties. This is a lot less than the $ 250m that their lawyers asked for. Each victim should receive up to $34,000.
Campaign groups have urged the international community not to abandon his victims, and put money into a fund for them in case the amount recovered from Habre proves to be insufficient.
Campaigners are also owed the $129m that the Chadian Government was ordered to pay victims after the N’Djamena trial. President Deby has so far remained silent on the issue and has not set up a commission to deal with it. Zidane and other victims need medical attention due to the tortures inflicted on them, but cannot afford medical treatment. Most of them have very little money. Zidane says Habre’s life sentence will compensate for his crimes. “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. Hissene Habre 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. 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.”