Ousted Chadian leader’s torture villa uncovered

EYEWITNESS: Mark Huband in N’djamena

The Guardian, 7 December 1990

THE torture centre of the ousted Chadian leader, Hissene Habré, is one of the smarter buildings behind a high wall on the dusty road leading from the Place de la République. A fine example of architecture from between the wars, the spacious residence is set in large grounds, with outhouses and a large, deep swimming pool.

Beneath the fine layer of sand in the courtyard, slowly fading photographic film curls up under the hot sun, turning brittle the negative images of the people who lived there: Hassan Bourma, Abakar Abdelkarim, Hassan Abayar, Hassan Djouma and others – they each hold up their names and numbers on boards in front of them. The boards are also marked; “2éme peloton,” and “3éme peloton”. Second batch, third batch.

The courtyard of the villa is quiet, emptied of people last Friday when the capital, N’djamena, was invaded by rebels of Idriss Déby’s Patriotic Salvation Movement. The chassis of old Peugeots rest on blocks of wood. The sandy ground is strewn with papers – records hurled out of filing cabinets which now lie empty in the ransacked offices.

For the past decade, the villa has been the Direction de Documentation (DDS) – the interrogation centre for Mr Habré’s political prisoners.

Photographs, notes, detailed records of the movement of prisoners, letters, empty packets of Gitanes and Gauloises lie in thick piles on the floor. “Movement by Toyota from DDS to gendarmerie of prisoner number … “. The records are neat, detailed, written in flowing handwriting. ‘

The villa was one of the buildings looted on Saturday when the old regime finally fell to Mr Déby’s army after a 21-day desert war.

Stone steps lead down into the shallow end of the swimming pool. A roof has been built just above the level where bathers once plied up and down. Down the steps it is cool. A passage leads down the slope to the swimming pool’s deep end. On either side of the passage, battered iron doors open on to prison cells.

Bright shafts of sunlight reach into the cells through tiny barred windows 15 feet above the floor, which slopes slightly as the pool gets deeper.

The walls are faded white. What looks like a fountain has been daubed in dirt on one. There are no names scratched into the plaster, just the shoulder-high signs of prisoners crammed into the cells and forced to stand. Empty tins litter the floor, woven mats are piled in the corner of one cell. At the deep end, the lingering smell of a toilet fills the prison.

“There were around 80 people ‘in each cell, which meant you could stand up or squat down,” said Gali Gata Ngothe, a minister in Chad’s new government, who was freed from the prison on Friday when the city was invaded.

“Maybe two or three people survived when the cells were that crowded,” he added. “If they didn’t die of torture, people died of suffocation or malnutrition. I lost 25 kilos in three months.

“They had this torture called Arbatach. They forced prisoners to drink enormous amounts of water, sometimes two buckets. Then they tied their arms and legs together and hoisted them from a tree in the yard. Very high. Then they would just let the rope go. People died of choking, or they broke their necks. Many died like that. I survived, but my leg is bad. Other people had their arms and legs amputated. Sometimes Habré was there at the torture,” Mr Ngothe said.

Beside the pool is a line of small rooms attached to the main villa. In one, a tangle of coloured wire leads from a hole in the wall to a metal frame screwed to a table. “This table was where they lay people down and then attached those wires to them for electricity treatment,” said one of the turbaned fighters whose desert war brought a swift end to the regime.

The young fighter did not seem to want anybody to stay in there very long. He wanted the place to be closed, for nobody to look at what had happened. A Jeep with other fighters arrived in the courtyard. They strode through the offices and into the room where the electric shocks were administered.

“The tortures were bizarre, and it astonished me that an intellectually capable man like Habré could do these things,” said Mr Ngothe. “Women were brought to the prison and they kept their children there. One came with her two-month-old baby. She was there for two years, so the baby learnt to walk, if that was possible in that space, and to talk. It only knew prison. That was all.”

Outside on the street, people stare and mill around or walk slowly to get a look inside as the gates are opened. Mr Habré’s torture chamber was well known. It was opposite the office of the United States Administration for International Development, (Usaid) office, and is probably within screaming distance of the United Nations building just down at the corner of the square.



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