Monday, April 14, 2008 — Jeune Afrique 8 avril 2008 AFP: Les députés modifient la Constitution pour juger Hissène Habré — A Personal Ghost Comes Back in a Brief News Report

It seems that a relent­less tread­mill of events forces me to write, in this blog, about noth­ing but dic­ta­tors, famines, and wars. For those of you who are tired of it, let me con­fess that I am, too. I want­ed to devote a new entry to one of my real pas­sions ― land­scape, music, read­ing, nature, erot­ic plea­sure, the exquis­ite free­dom of the road. But an arti­cle for­ward­ed to me unleashed a flood of mem­o­ry and opened up pri­vate box­es that I’ve gen­er­al­ly kept shut. And it was about a dic­ta­tor. Now, I write a lot about dic­ta­tors, and the obser­vant among you will notice that I don’t much like them. But, in most cas­es, this is the result of study­ing his­to­ry. Dic­ta­tors are peo­ple I’ve most­ly encoun­tered in books. But there is one excep­tion. There is a dic­ta­tor with whom my rela­tion­ship is more con­crete, and has noth­ing to do with books. He is one of the “small-fry”. His crimes are mon­strous, but his numer­ous vic­tims were peo­ple the world cared noth­ing about. The slaugth­er and hor­ror took place right next door to the cur­rent slaugh­ter in Dar­fur, and was on the same scale, but in those pre-inter­net days it might as well have tak­en place in anoth­er solar sys­tem. The man I’m talk­ing about is Hissène Habré.

A mounted Dazaga (Gourane).... not quite a match for the more remote (and seldom photographed) Teda.

A mount­ed Daza­ga (Gourane).… not quite a match for the more remote (and sel­dom pho­tographed) Teda.

I’m going to write this item now, in one slug, with­out ref­er­ence mate­r­i­al, so it will depend entire­ly on my per­son­al mem­o­ry of events a quar­ter cen­tu­ry ago, so bear with me. I may get some details wrong. If so, I will cor­rect them when the cast­ing cools.

The Jeune Afrique news item reveals that Habré may actu­al­ly face a court of law. L’Assem­blée nationale du Séné­gal a mod­i­fié mar­di la Con­sti­tu­tion, en intro­duisant de manière “excep­tion­nelle” une rétroac­tiv­ité pour des infrac­tions comme les crimes con­tre l’hu­man­ité pour lesquels est pour­suivi l’ex-chef d’E­tat tcha­di­en, Hissène Habré, au pou­voir entre 1982–90. it reads. Sene­gal has changed it’s con­sti­tu­tion so that a for­eign head of state can be tried for human rights vio­la­tions. Habré may pos­si­bly come to tri­al for his crimes. But don’t count on it. The strug­gle to bring him to jus­tice, ini­ti­at­ed by human rights activists in Bel­gian courts, has been con­sis­tent­ly resist­ed by both the Sene­galese gov­ern­ment, and the African Union. Bel­gium has been seek­ing his extra­di­tion, but Sene­gal has refused it. The African Union, an orga­ni­za­tion dom­i­nat­ed by dic­ta­tors, does not approve of the idea of dic­ta­tors being tried.and it has done every­thing in its pow­er to dis­cour­age the extra­di­tion. Instead, they have insist­ed on a tri­al in Sene­gal. So the “tri­al” may prove to be a potemkin vil­lage. On the oth­er hand, Habré may be sac­ri­ficed in the inter­est of head­ing off the extra­di­tion prece­dent, at least to the extent of being found offi­cial­ly guilty.

For eigh­teen years, now, Habré, oust­ed by a coup, has lived in com­fort­able exile in Dakar, the clean West African city with pleas­ant boule­vards, where one can stroll on Plage Bel-Air or the Anse-Bernard, shop for high-fash­ion boubous at Islam Cou­ture, and where the aro­ma of roast­ed peanuts and fresh­ly baked baguettes per­me­ates the air. Now there is a dif­fer­ent dic­ta­tor in far­away, mind-bog­gling­ly poor Chad, cut from the same cloth, but not as extreme. Few peo­ple out­side of Africa know of Habré’s crimes, and even few­er care. He is one of those blood­thirsty mon­sters who was cre­at­ed, installed, encour­aged, pam­pered, and financed by Amer­i­can Con­ser­v­a­tives, and com­mit­ted sick­en­ing atroc­i­ties. He mur­dered tens of thou­sands of inno­cent men, women and chil­dren, and prac­ticed tor­ture on a mas­sive scale.

But my mem­o­ries date from the peri­od when he was not yet in pow­er, still essen­tial­ly a trib­al chief­tain in one of the remotest, most inhos­pitable parts of the world, one of many char­ac­ters in a war that last­ed from 1978 to 1987. At the time, I had no idea that he was on Ronald Reagan’s pay­roll, and that the chil­dren being burnt alive, or sold into slav­ery, the women and old peo­ple shot or hacked to death, could thank the Amer­i­can tax-pay­er for their expe­ri­ence. Nor did I know that Reagan’s CIA hench­men were pay­ing and train­ing what would become the DDS, Habré’s secret police, assas­si­na­tion and tor­ture squads. Some esti­mates put the num­ber of tor­ture vic­tims as high as 200,000 — mak­ing Sad­dam Hus­sein look like a dilet­tante, by comparison.

But this stuff was just start­ing to roll, when I start­ed pok­ing around. All I knew was that Habré was a Daza of the Anakaze clan, and was lead­ing an army of Daza and Teda war­riors against the cur­rent dic­ta­tor of Chad, Gouk­ouni Oued­dei, who was a Teda of the Toma­gra clan, and the grand­son of the Derde of Bar­dai, in the high Tibesti. The Derde was asso­ci­at­ed with the Senus­si school of IsI­am, which Islamized the Teda in the 19th cen­tu­ry. I knew that Habré had stud­ied polit­i­cal sci­ence in Paris, spout­ed the usu­al moron­ic Marx­ist clap­trap, and had formed part of Oueddei’s gov­ern­ment, until he retreat­ed to his desert fast­ness. I also knew that he had, a few years ear­li­er, kid­napped a French archae­ol­o­gist named Françoise Claus­tre, her assis­tant, and a Ger­man doc­tor, whose names I can’t remem­ber, hid­den them in the remote Tibesti, and demand­ed a ran­som. He exe­cut­ed a French army offi­cer sent to nego­ti­ate for the cap­tives. Her hus­band attempt­ed to nego­ti­ate, but he, too was cap­tured. France paid a hefty ran­som, but Habré kept it, with­out releas­ing the hostages. Lat­er, he released them as part of anoth­er deal. I also knew that most of the seden­tary peo­ple on the edge of the Sahara feared him, and that his forces were some­how con­nect­ed to the slave trade. More recent­ly, Libyan forces, heav­i­ly armed with mod­ern weapons, had invad­ed Chad and annexed much of the emp­ty Saha­ran part of the coun­try, at least the parts you could get to in a tank. But in the remote and rugged Tibesti, they con­trolled noth­ing except the for­ti­fied posi­tion at Bar­dai. Habré’s desert war­riors drove this army out of Bar­dai and now, from the moun­tains, indi­rect­ly con­trolled much of the north­ern half of the coun­try. Oued­dei remained in con­trol of the Cap­i­tal, and the pop­u­lat­ed south. That was just start­ing to change.

The Teda are the north­ern divi­sion of the Toubou peo­ple, the south­ern divi­sion usu­al­ly being called Daza­ga or Gourane. A Teda desert war­rior is one of the most fright­en­ing things you can ever see, and you can eas­i­ly under­stand their supe­ri­or­i­ty in com­bat over even the most well-armed mod­ern armies. Even the Tuareg, the famous war­riors of the Sahara to the west of them, who kept the French army at bay for a hun­dred years, do not care to tan­gle with them. Like the Tuareg, the men are veiled, and tra­di­tion­al­ly nev­er show their faces. Habré, how­ev­er, did show his face, puffy and beard­ed then, though he now appears slim­mer and the beard is now grey­ing. Like most dic­ta­tors, he changes looks to suit the audi­ence (he now affects the air of a sim­ple, pious Mus­lim). Many of his sol­diers, a rab­ble of hooli­gans of var­ied ori­gins, were dressed in French-style com­bat uni­forms, or frac­tions there­of. But the ones who real­ly count­ed were the old-style mount­ed Teda war­riors, because it was they who could fight in the Tibesti, an envi­ron­ment in which every­thing is extreme, and every­thing is dan­ger­ous. The Teda have inhab­it­ed this land for no one knows how many thou­sands of years. They may have been the Gara­mantes who defeat­ed Roman legions. Their cus­toms show more influ­ence from Ancient Egypt than from their nom­i­nal Islam.

For, at the time I speak of, Tibesti was one of the remotest and most dif­fi­cult places to reach on Earth, and though it can be more eas­i­ly reached now, it remains one of the harsh­est land­scapes on the plan­et. Afghanistan, by com­par­i­son, is Cen­tral Park. The Tibesti mas­sif is a com­plex of sev­en giant vol­ca­noes, each reach­ing ten or eleven thou­sand feet in height (3,000–3,500 m), gigan­tic lava flows, and two immense mete­or impact craters. The land­scape is like giant pieces of jagged, bro­ken glass scat­tered in a maze of tan­gled ridges, pil­lars, craters, stink­ing natron pits, and the occa­sion­al lake of boil­ing mud. Hid­den in a labyrinthine maze of geo­log­i­cal for­ma­tions, most of which can’t be crossed by any vehi­cle or ani­mal, are a hand­ful of oases, and wadis with a lit­tle veg­e­ta­tion and mois­ture. This lost world of strange, almost Mar­t­ian land­scapes cov­ers an area about 300 km (or 200 miles) from east to west, and a lit­tle less from north to south.

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