For the two decades that he has been free, Souleymane Guengueng has constantly relived the two years he spent in a Chadian prison, where he watched hundreds of cellmates die from torture and disease. Thrown in jail in 1988 for still-unknown reasons, the deeply religious civil servant took an oath before God: If he ever got out alive, he would bring his tormentors to justice. So when the country's dictator fell in a 1990 coup and Guengueng walked out of prison, he used his considerable charm to persuade still-frightened victims to form an association and start preparing a case against their aggressor. But Chad's new government brought back many of the old henchmen and allowed the former tyrant -- Hissène Habré -- to live in quiet luxury in Senegal.
Now, 20 years later, Habré is finally facing trial in Senegal on charges of mass murder and torture. As a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, I've been involved for more than a decade with the case against him, which is based in large part on Guengueng's work compiling countless testimonies and an archive of police torture that I accidentally found in Chad's capital, N'Djamena, in 2002. It will be the first trial by the courts of one country against the former head of state of another. That is, if it actually takes place. Senegalese stalling tactics, including its $40 million budget request, are holding up the trial -- and until that changes, Souleymane Guengueng won't be the only Chadian still trapped in his country's brutal past.
Back in 1981, it would have been hard to imagine Habré where he is today. U.S. President Ronald Reagan saw the then-warlord as a bulwark against the ambitions of Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, Chad's expansionist neighbor to the north. Habré had already earned a reputation for extreme brutality, once kidnapping a French anthropologist and then murdering the officer sent to negotiate her release. But Washington could not pass up a chance to "bloody Qaddafi's nose," as Secretary of State Alexander Haig reportedly put it, and Habré's march on N'Djamena in 1982 was buoyed by generous covert U.S. support. Once he took over, the United States provided Habré with massive military aid and used a clandestine base in Chad to train captured Libyan soldiers as members of an anti-Qaddafi force. Habré served Washington's purpose; when the Libyans moved into northern Chad in the 1980s, Habré swiftly kicked them out. But Habré also turned his country into a police state, the legacy of which still lingers today under the current Chadian president, the man who ousted Habré, Idriss Déby.
When Habré was overthrown, he fled to Senegal, and at first, there seemed to be little hope of a reckoning for his crimes. But the 1998 London arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet buoyed the hopes of Chadian activists, including Guengueng. They asked Human Rights Watch, which participated in the Pinochet case, to assist Habré's victims. Eager to extend the "Pinochet precedent" to other tyrants, we helped Guengueng file charges against Habré in Senegal in January 2000, and a Dakar judge soon placed the former dictator under house arrest.
In the meantime, I had begun to make frequent trips to Chad to help build the case against Habré. And one day in 2002, I stumbled upon a gold mine: While visiting the abandoned headquarters of Habré's political police, the feared "DDS," I saw rooms with documents strewn over the floor a foot deep, covered with cobwebs. Bending down, I scooped up a file on a DDS detainee, then a report on rebel activity. Continuing through, I found lists of DDS prisoners, death certificates, interrogation reports, and identity cards. All the records of Habré's secret police were just sitting there, apparently unnoticed for over a decade. We had found a forgotten and disheveled, but meticulously detailed, archive of Chad's darkest period.