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He Bore Up Under Torture. Now He Bears Witness.

Foreign Desk; Section A
The New York Times
Page 3, Column 1
c. 2001 New York Times Company

NDJAMENA, Chad -- Apologizing for lacking a fan against the oppressive heat, Souleymane Guengueng led a visitor inside his mud-brick home after church on a recent Sunday. He settled in an armchair, near a gray filing cabinet, inside which he had collected evidence of hundreds of cases of torture committed by the government of this Central African nation in the 1980's.

He cut the figure of a most ordinary man: the threadbare gray suit of the nondescript style favored by midranking civil servants; the thick, owlish eyeglasses that emphasized his training as an accountant; the slight build that suggested he ate just enough.

But on a continent where ordinary men are tortured, killed and forgotten without a second thought, Mr. Guengueng, 52, has done something extraordinary: fought back. After being unjustly imprisoned and tortured for two years in the late 1980's, he spent the next decade gathering testimony from fellow victims and their families.

The evidence provided critical material for Chadian and international human rights organizations to pursue a case against the country's former dictator, Hissene Habre, according to Reed Brody, advocacy director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The case suffered a setback this month when the highest court in Senegal, Mr. Habre's home in exile, ruled that he could not be tried there. Mr. Guengueng was undaunted. ''We are preparing for a new plan of attack to try him in another country,'' he said.

Mr. Guengueng, meanwhile, has become perhaps one of the most famous torture survivors on a continent that rights groups say accounts for 55 percent of torture and mistreatment cases worldwide.

He has written for a Paris magazine and fields phone calls at home from rights organizations in New York and researchers at Harvard. But it was only two years ago that he got a telephone line, which now consumes a good chunk of his monthly salary.

''I used to receive calls at my neighbor's across the street,'' he said. ''But I began thinking that I was getting involved in a serious business, and was it fair to put my neighbor at risk? That's when I decided to get the phone. Now we are two in this neighborhood to have phone lines.''

Some of the 24 members of his family living with him chatted noisily in the courtyard. But in his room the heat seemed to have put most occupants to sleep. A cat lay stretched under a small table. The youngest of Mr. Guengueng's eight children, Assing-Li, 5, lay on the floor on his belly.

The boy's name means ''It's a Miracle'' in Kim, the language of his ethnicity, Mr. Guengueng said.

''After one was arrested,'' Mr. Guengueng recalled, ''and after one spent that much time in prison, one had assumed that we had all become impotent. He was really a miracle of God.''

The trouble began, to hear Mr. Guengueng tell it, with Chad's civil war in the late 1970's.

The Lake Chad Basin Commission -- for which Mr. Guengueng works to this day -- moved its headquarters to neighboring Cameroon because of the fighting here in the capital. Because many Chadian rebels passed through Cameroon, Mr. Guengueng said, he was branded an opponent of the American-backed President Habre.

And so, on Aug. 3, 1988, only days after he had undergone surgery to treat an old wound suffered in a robbery, he was put in prison. Presumed dead by his family, he remained there until December 1990, when Mr. Habre was overthrown by the current president, Idriss Deby. He was kept in completely dark cells, or in cells with intense lighting, sometimes alone, sometimes with 10 other men in places built for one.

Some guards allowed prisoners to wash; others kept them unwashed for weeks, Mr. Guengueng recalled. Guards tossed them rotten rice and poured water into the cells.

''The drops of water that fell, the prisoners had to lick like dogs off the floor or off their bodies,'' he said. ''They even tried to stop us from praying. When we prayed, Christians or Muslims, they thought we were asking God to kill Hissene Habre.''

As Mr. Guengueng spoke, one of his daughters came into the room, bearing a tray of food and a washbowl. She placed the bowl under the table, rousing the cat, despite the heat.

Assing-Li, who refused to eat with anyone except his father, tugged at Mr. Guengueng's arm.

One year after his release, with the improving rights situation, Mr. Guengueng and others founded the Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime. With an accountant's meticulousness, he then began gathering testimony from victims, widows and orphans.

''We interviewed more than a thousand people, but we had 712 very good files, with testimony and photos,'' he said. ''Because we are all created in God's image, should all these people created in his image be silenced, forgotten? Was there not something that we could do for the victims and their relatives to regain their honor?''

His son kept pulling on his arm. The cat rubbed itself against Mr. Guengueng's leg, purring. He kicked the cat away. The father and son began eating fish stew with rice and millet.

Then, last year, in a case inspired by the one against the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, several rights groups led by Human Rights Watch filed suit against Mr. Habre in Senegal -- arguing that he could be tried anywhere for crimes against humanity and that former heads of state were not immune.

Mr. Guengueng and other victims traveled to testify in Senegal -- against the wishes of family members who feared repercussions back here, because many of Mr. Habre's former allies remained in power.

''My family, my friends told me I was wasting my time,'' he recalled. ''My friends told my wife she was stupid. Why didn't she stop me from going to Senegal?''

He would be destroyed perhaps, but not defeated. ''When I left Chad for Senegal, I had accepted the idea of dying. I thought when I return to Chad and get off at the airport, they can cut off my head if they want. I would die a hero. That's all I wanted out of life now.''

When the case was thrown out this month in Senegal, whose courts ultimately were not independent enough, Human Rights Watch and other groups said their new strategy would be to get an arrest warrant and extradition request from Belgium (one of Chad's victims is now a Belgian citizen) and put Mr. Habre on trial there.

This could be done under the precedent set by the Pinochet case. If they succeeded -- still a big if -- other African despots might then think twice about abusing citizens at home and taking their shopping trips abroad in Paris and New York.

Indeed, it is Mr. Guengueng's determination to apply these rules in Africa, where the elite are generally considered untouchable, that makes his activism extraordinary, say rights officials, who consider Mr. Guengueng the most fearless of the survivors.

''Others tend to be more reticent,'' said Djekourninga Kaoutar Lazare, secretary general of the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. ''He has always been the most outspoken.''

That is perhaps one reason his association has been able to deflect some of the criticism for accepting a $5,000 gift from the current president, Mr. Deby. He met with Mr. Guengueng's association in September, promising his support in the Habre case.

Mr. Guengueng's daughter returned, with the news that one of his nephews had crossed into neighboring Cameroon without identification papers. The border guards were demanding a bribe of 300 local francs, or about 40 cents, to let him return. Mr. Guengueng handed her a 500-franc note.

He made no apologies for accepting the presidential gift, which his organization has used to rent an office. The money, he said, will not mute his criticism of the government. Asked whether he believed the government was sincere in its stated support of human rights, he said: ''Politicians have this in common: When they are pestered about human rights, they react to international pressure. But at the same time they are doing the opposite. It's the same with all African regimes. It's a daily struggle for us.''

tchadien Hissène Habré
© 2000 Corbis-Sygma
L'ancien Président tchadien Hissène Habré

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