Clément Abaifouta: “Forgiveness does not come easy after this kind of suffering, but we are working on it.”
Clément Abaifouta is the quintessential survivor. In July 1985, he was arrested by Hissène Habré’s dreaded Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS) just as he was about to leave Chad for further studies in Germany. He would spend the next four years enduring harsh conditions in detention on top of which he was forced to bury fellow detainees in mass graves just outside N’Djamena. In all, Abaifouta believes he buried up to 500 fellow detainees.
Though he suffered from serious post-traumatic stress after his detention, Abaifouta did not let those experiences break him. Instead, he joined forces with other victims in the long fight to bring the former dictator to justice, a feat that they finally achieved on July 20th 2015, 25 years after Habré was deposed. Today Abaifouta is President of the Chadian Victims’ Association (AVCRP). He recently participated in a Q and A session after the airing of the film “The Dictator Hunter”. A portion of that discussion, lightly edited for clarity, has been reproduced here as part of Justice Hub’s #MyJustice series.
Discussion moderator: You also say in the movie, “until justice is done”, what does that mean? Is that with the life sentence of Hissène Habré? For you personally and for your society, what is justice and when is it done? Can it ever be done?
Abaifouta: For me personally justice must be done because something wrong happened and destroyed the society. So I think that the duty for me and all the victims after the trial ends is to purify the society. We have to clean Chad to build another new society after the trial. If not, then I think we'll be contributing to the destruction of the society.
Discussion moderator: In your work, you bring together the victims and perpetrators. You do that not just for accountability but the healing process, the forgiveness. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you do that and does it really work? Are the victims able to forgive?
Abaifouta: For those who can remember what happened in the jails, especially those who lost a father, mother or brother, it is not easy for them to accept forgiveness. Forgiveness does not come easy after this kind of suffering, but we are working on it. We are working not for us but for the new generation to build a new society without bad things. For me, we are all human beings created by God, we have an obligation to live together in peace.
Discussion moderator: That leads me a to a question about the trial of Hissène Habré itself. Your efforts are very much focused on forgiveness and trying to give the story of victims a place. But then Habré comes on trial and he refuses to admit any guilt. He gives no space for any sense of forgiveness. He obstructs, he tries to delegitimize the process. He says "I do not recognise this as justice". How did that feel for you as a victim and for your society?
Abaifouta: As a victim, you are very shocked because throughout Hissène Habré did not cooperate. What we expected is Habré to say that something happened in the country with my control or without my control but I have to ask forgiveness because many bad things happened. That is what we expected from him but he didn't talk. It is like Hissène Habré has put us again in the prison, in the fire. That was my feeling.
If Hissène Habré accepted to talk during the trial, it would have been very helpful for us. Because maybe he would have given good reasons for what happened. As he didn't talk, it is so complicated for us since the reality [Habré|s] didn't get revealed.
Audience question: In the beginning of the movie, it was mentioned that France actually financed the DDS. Do you know if they [France] ever admitted that they were wrong?
Abaifouta: The United States and France gave support, financed and trained DDS staff. So I think it is their responsibility after the trial to support the victims of the regime.
(Discussion moderator: It is also the tragedy of Chad, and of many of these conflicts, that it is never a story that is separated from geopolitics. The Chad story has everything to do with Gadhafi and the involvement of many states. When we see the struggle for justice, the way that attempts were undertaken to shield Habré from justice in Senegal. The role of all these states is so complicated because at the same time they have now heavily financed the trial. It is a complex geopolitical constellation.)
Audience question: The film was quite shocking and touching. The message was "never again". Now that has Habré has been tried, it would seem like justice has been done. Is that how the victims feel? What about compensation?
Abaifouta: We worked hard for 25 years to make this trial a reality. There are now three associations for victims in Chad. All the victims that were registered in the three associations were involved in this trial. After the final decision on the 27th of April, I believe the victims will benefit from the support. I cannot oblige someone who does not want to register for the trial. I think that those who registered will benefit from the support. All of us are Chadians and we must build our hearts and our spirits to develop our country.
Audience question: What happened to you during the Habré regime?
Abaifouta: I got a scholarship to go to Germany to study. They suddenly came and took me to the DDS because according to them I was not going to study but to join the rebellion. But that was not true. Throughout the four years I was in the prison, I suffered a lot without accommodation, without food. I suffered a lot. I almost died. But God saved me.
Audience question: During the time you were in prison, you were forced to bury the bodies of other detainees. Could you tell us about that experience?
Abaifouta: I was forced by the soldiers to bury up to ten bodies every day. My colleagues would die without medicine, food, just the suffering killed them. That was my experience every day.
Audience question: What about your work with the association of victims. Why did you start doing that?
Abaifouta: Because up to today, I do not know why or for what reason I was arrested. I think that as I don’t know why I was arrested, maybe some others are suffering the same way. I have to work to put out the reality to build the sense of humanity because for me the human being is the big and great thing that God has made so we have to give all the consideration and respect to human beings.
Audience question: Are you happy with the results of the trial?
Abaifouta: Yes, I am happy because I have walked the famous walk.