The first close-up of a body in the documentary, Hissène Habré: A Chadian Trajedy, is that of a man with deep cuts on his neck, chin and ribs. None of the words of the narration that precedes this close-up, describing the events leading to the images we’re about to encounter, prepares the eyes and mind for the viscerally of that image. The documentary, screened at the festival to a packed Cinema Hall, is about the survivors of the Hissène Habré’s crimes in Chad.
With Clement Abaifouta as guide, the camera moves through the houses of victims, roving over their faces as they describe the horrors faced in the hands of the dictator’s men. Hissène Habréruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, and in that time, over 40,000 people were killed, and many more enslaved, imprisoned, maimed, and made victims of other horrifying acts. There’s a banner on a wall that depicts images of the torture some of the people interviewed said they couldn’t describe to other people.
The male victims of the dictator’s brutality shown in the documentary wear their sorrow in their scars. Their memories are encoded in the deep, dark, keloids and markings that cover their bodies. In missing limbs and detached fingernails. In the spasms of the man nutritionally deprived to the point where his cerebellum was affected, according to a doctor’s prognosis shown on screen, which made it impossible for him to walk unaided. As one of the men narrates how his jaw was dislocated and another man had to punch him, permanently disfiguring his face, he starts to cry. Much later in the documentary, the man is shown eating with his children and telling them how it was good that their teacher beat them for being late. The audience laughed, at what one hopes is the irony of the moment.
Few women are interviewed in the documentary. These women do not show the camera their physical scars like their male counterparts. One of them speaks of how her husband was arrested and never returned. How she was arrested too and detained. How all these eventually led to the death of her twenty hear old daughter. Although the women don’t display the physical markers of their agony, it is apparent in how they hold back the horrifying details of what was done to them. During the conversation after the screening with Dr Olaokun Soyinka, Clement spoke of how many of the women were sent to the desert to be sex slaves to the soldiers fighting in the war.
The documentary isn’t just about showing the result of the brutal dictatorship, but also the search for justice, key to which was the efforts of Jacqueline Moudeina, the lawyer who was instrumental to bringing justice for the victims. In the conversation, which was conducted via a translator from French, Clement said of Jacqueline, “he has a lot of admiration. She was very young and just starting to be a lawyer. She was attached by the DSS and injured.” Yet, she was with them for fifteen years on the journey to justice. In May 2016, Hissène Habré was finally sentenced to life in prison.
Clement said he did a strong selection of the interview subjects, careful to ensure all their stories were true, and none fiction. It was painful for him to listen to the victims because their stories reminded him of his experience. He was imprisoned for four years. Clement believes leaving the country is not an important thing for him because that would be seen as abandoning his responsibilities.
On reconciliation, he said: “There’s the need to write all that has to be written on the page of justice before moving to the page of reconciliation.” This thought was mirrored in the documentary when one of the victims faced his torturer who was reluctant to seek for forgiveness even after admitting his own callousness during the regime. He chose, instead, to ascribe the things he did to simply following orders.
Clement also spoke, in response to an audience question on his opinion of God and religion, of the importance of religion to them in prison as some form of solace, which was also reflected upon briefly in the documentary. But he said he can no longer accept any kind of violence.
In seeking justice, Clement spoke of the importance of secrecy of their operations, of hiding their documents as they went getting the dictator to pay for the crimes he committed. In the process, they had the support of organisations like the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, The European Union, among others. But more still needs to be done in support of the victims, especially in their health, which, until now, they’ve had to deal with on their own.
There’s a scene in the documentary where the victims are seated together, plates of rice shared around. The man with the impaired cerebellum attempts to dance and is joined by a woman. Habré is imprisoned. They won’t forget the things he has done to them and no human justice system would be able to correct what was done to them. But still, they can dance in the face of all that. Their humanity, although it is cut down, threatened by the dictator, still finds the place for full expression. Clement is a hero, as so are these people who have survived the dictator to tell their stories.
IfeOluwa Nihinlola edits and writes essays and short stories. He blogs at ifenihinlola.wordpress.com.