New York Times
February 7, 2010
On Feb. 11, 1990 — 20 years ago this Thursday — Nelson Mandela walked through the gates of a South African prison after 27 years of confinement. His release was celebrated the world over. But it had a particular effect on those who were being held as political prisoners by other repressive regimes. The Op-Ed editors asked seven of these former captives to describe what it was like when they heard the news of Mr. Mandela’s liberation.
Ray of Light
By SOULEYMANE GUENGUENG
During the dictatorship of Hissène Habré in Chad, I was wrongfully accused of political activity and imprisoned. Our jail was infested with insects, and the heat was nearly unbearable. Packed in our cells, we had to take turns to sleep, often on top of the corpses of other prisoners who had died from torture, disease or malnutrition. We were forbidden to pray aloud. And every night, President Habré’s political police took away prisoners who never returned.
As we were cut off from the outside world, our only news was that brought by new prisoners. It was thus that Brahim, a man who would later die in jail, told us that Nelson Mandela had been freed and had walked out of prison a hero.
The news was a ray of light in our dark prison. If Mr. Mandela could survive 27 years, then there was hope for us too. From the depths of that madness, I took an oath before God that if I did get out alive, I would fight for justice. Although I contracted hepatitis, dengue fever and malaria, I did survive. When Mr. Habré was overthrown in December 1990 and fled to Senegal, the prison doors were flung open, and I returned, a walking skeleton, to my family.
Nelson Mandela showed us that prison can strengthen a man. After my release, I gathered the stories of 792 other Chadian prisoners and took them to Senegal. Ten years ago this week, based in part on my evidence, a judge in Senegal charged Mr. Habré with torture and crimes against humanity. Sadly the Senegalese government has not yet brought the case to trial.
Still, I wonder, on the day Mr. Habré was indicted, did he ask himself, “Who is that nobody who is coming after me — me, a man who destroyed entire tribes, entire villages?”
Souleymane Guengueng spent 27 months in a Chadian prison and now lives in New York City.