Khadidja Hassan Zidane testifies during the trial of the former dictator of Chad Hissène Habré in Senegal on October 19 and 20, 2015. She and other women described their experiences in the desert camp at Oudi-Doum, where nine women and girls were allegedly forced to serve the soldiers of Hissène Habré’s army. 

© 2015 Radiodiffusion Télévision Sénégalaise

Khadidja told me she had been repeatedly tortured, and imprisoned in Hissène Habré’s presidential palace in N’Djamena. She had promised me that the day she came face-to-face with the former president, whose brutal rule in Chad lasted from 1982 until he was ousted in 1990, she would reveal what she had really experienced. Khadidja kept her promise.

Some reveal it openly, others indirectly. The alleged crimes took place over 25 years ago, but for these women the effects have lingered. Taking the witness stand, they all recounted how they were held prisoner, transported, raped, or tortured. Humiliated, degraded, stigmatized. Still, they had the courage to come to Dakar to testify at  Habré’s trial. Habré is being tried for crimes against humanity, torture, and war crimes by the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special Senegalese court established with support of the African Union.

Each victim called to the stand had trodden the same path: first the wait in a drab Dakar hotel, then the wait in a small windowless room in the Palais de Justice in the Senegalese capital. A bailiff comes for you. You enter the courtroom. The lights are bright and harsh. The courtroom is filled with cameras; the trial is being broadcast via streaming over the internet and on Chadian television.

To the left: the public, at times as many as several hundred onlookers, some there in support of the accused. To the right: the court officials; two clerks, three judges, four prosecutors, all in long red robes, all looking down at you. All are men, with the exception of one prosecutor. The bailiff walks you toward someone wearing a large white tunic, his head wrapped in a white turban, sunglasses pressed to his nose. There sits the defendant, Hissène Habré, in a leather armchair,

All eyes are riveted on you. Everyone in the room hangs on your every word. You are placed in the middle of the courtroom, eye–level with the former president of Chad, about 15 feet away, also facing the president of the chamber.  He asks you to proceed with your deposition.

Many of the voices are faint as the women begin, trembling, broken. Some cry. The more one has suffered, it seems, the more difficult and painful is the exercise. Until now, sexual crimes have yet to be mentioned at the trial.

In an open letter dated October 16 addressed to the president of the chamber and the chief prosecutor, the representatives of 17 organizations—including the winner of the 2014 Sakharov prize, Dr. Denis Mukwege, known as “the man who repairs women” for his surgery to repair damage from rape—criticized the lack of attention to sexual violence at Habré’s trial. They hadn’t counted on these four impressive women of courage.

Each woman stated that she had been arrested by agents of the regime and held for several months in N’Djamena prisons run by the DDS (Directorate of Documentation and Security), Habré’s dreaded secret police. Some were raped there. Merami testified that she had been subjected to electric shock and tortured upon arrest. “I was practically dying by the time they put me in prison. They gave me no treatment, except for a few pills.”

Speaking in a melodious, Chadian-accented Arabic, her voice firm, Khadidja described her multiple arrests, the appalling conditions of her imprisonment, the times she was tortured. She showed no sign of being intimidated. As soon as she began speaking of sexual assaults the chief judge offered to hear her in closed session. The witness refused. “No, I’m not going to hide a thing. They slept with me. I’ll even take my clothes off to show you.” Several times she declared that she was prepared to display where she had been stabbed with a pen in the legs and genitals.

Questioned by the prosecutors, she answered unhesitatingly. “Habré raped me four times.” When Habré’s court-appointed lawyers challenged the veracity of what she alleged, she countered: “I’m ashamed to say it, it’s shameful for my family. Even here, I feel ashamed to say it. I’m telling the truth, Allah knows ... Habré asked me to sit down and when I did he pulled me onto the floor by my hair,” she said, miming how it happened.

Like Khaltouma, Haoua and Merami, who testified afterward, Khadidja was sent to Ouadi Doum, in the northern Chadian desert. “It was a military base, no civilians were there. We lived in a hangar and ate dried okra and uncooked rice,” said Haoua, arrested at age 14 by the DDS in an effort to trap her mother, then living in Nigeria. “The soldiers’ wives weren’t there. We washed their uniforms and cooked their meals.”

Khaltouma, a former flight attendant for Air Afrique who was arrested while her plane was making a stop in N’Djamena, provided more details on life in the military camp. “At night in Ouadi Doum two out of the six women were used in rotation as sexual slaves for the soldiers. It’s shameful. They planned it. They gave us pills so we wouldn’t get pregnant.” Merami, who was transported with her daughter, told the court that, “she was raped a number of times, even though she was only 12 years old.”

When they were finally freed, they were taken to the office of the head of prisons in N’Djamena. On the wall was a picture: “There was one monkey with his hands over his eyes, one monkey with his hands over his mouth, and another with his hands over his ears. They made us swear an oath in front of this picture, on the Quran, never to speak of it all,” Khadidja said. All these women, like almost all prisoners of the regime, were made to take the same oath. Committed to seeking justice, they decided to break it.

The women’s determination overcame their fear of the scrutiny of Chadian society, for which this subject remains taboo. They came to Dakar to tell the court and the world of the horrors they experienced. “Now that I see him there, silent, when he was so strong, so powerful before, I feel no more hatred,” said Khaltouma to the court, speaking of Habré. Habré’s defense team, which is boycotting the trial, issued a communiqué calling Khadija a “nymphomaniac prostitute.” But she said, simply, “I was very afraid in the beginning. Then I felt a strength inside that pushed me to complete my testimony. I feel a weight off my shoulders.”

Henri Thulliez is coordinator at Human Rights Watch for the Hissène Habré case.