Sifting through the thousands of documents we had found strewn across the floors of an abandoned secret police headquarters in Ndjamena, Chad, we glimpsed the final moments of Rose Lokissim’s brave life.
We first heard about Rose from survivors of Hissene Habre’s brutal 1980s government in Chad. A former elite soldier, Rose was arrested smuggling documents to rebels who had taken up arms against a dictatorship they could no longer tolerate. Her cellmates described her as a strong woman who kept up the prisoners’ morale in their overcrowded, putrid dungeon.
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She shook off her own torture, but became indignant when others were mistreated or executed. Risking her life, Rose noted these abuses and smuggled messages through to relatives. Ultimately, Habre’s secret police – the feared “DDS” – learned of her actions and killed her.
But it was the report of Rose’s last interrogation on May 15, 1986 that we found in the abandoned DDS offices 15 years later that truly revealed Rose’s passion.
According to her captors, Rose said that “even if she dies in prison, she doesn’t regret it, because Chad will thank her and history will talk about her”. They concluded that Rose was “irredeemable and continues to undermine state security, even in prison”, and recommended that “the authorities punish her severely”.
Rose was executed the same day.
Now, 29 years later, Rose’s courage is finally being remembered and her prophecy fulfilled as Hissene Habre prepares to stand trial on July 20 before a special court in Senegal, where he has lived since he was overthrown in 1990, and a new documentary narrated by the French actress Juliette Binoche tells Rose’s story.
Backed by the United Statesand France as a bulwark against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Habre is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture. In the DDS documents we uncovered alone are the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention – including Rose – as well as of 12,321 victims of torture and other abuses.
Backed by the United States and France as a bulwark against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, Habre is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture.
Despite this evidence, and Habre’s first indictment in 2000 by a Senegalese judge, the government of Senegal refused to allow the case to advance.
For that, it would take what the Toronto Globe and Mail called “one of the world’s most patient and tenacious campaigns for justice” by a group of survivors, a 2012 ruling from the International Court of Justice ordering Senegal to prosecute Habre “without further delay”, and the election the same year of a new president, Macky Sall.
Under Sall’s leadership, Senegal and the African Union created special chambers within the Senegalese court system, which again indicted Habré in July 2013 and placed him in pre-trial detention.
After a 19-month investigation, during which they carried out four missions to Chad, interviewed over 2,500 witnesses and victims, analysed the DDS documents and uncovered mass graves, a team of four judges found that there was sufficient evidence for Habre to face charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture.
The trial will be held before a bench led by a jurist from Burkina Faso who had served on the UN’s war crimes tribunal for Rwanda. A fair and transparent trial could justify le Monde’s description of the case as “a turning point for justice in Africa”.
Back in Chad, the authorities followed suit by dusting off the victims’ complaints and bringing to trial dozens of Habre’s henchmen, many of whom had still been serving as police chiefs and government officials. In January, after an emotional trial at which over 50 survivors testified about their torture, a Chadian court convicted 20 former officials to sentences of up to life in prison.
The court ordered the Chadian government and the people who had been convicted to pay $125 million in reparations to over 7,000 victims. And it ordered the government to create a monument at the “Plain of the Dead”, where Rose and hundreds of other prisoners were dumped into mass graves.
Rose was 33 years old when she was killed in 1986, but thanks to the discovery of her last words, and the tenacity of the survivors in bringing Habre to court, her memory lives on.
As Juliette Binoche says in the new film, “Rose’s chosen mission, for the world to know the truth about Hissene Habre’s prisons, is finally being achieved.”
And history is indeed talking about Rose.
Reed Brody and Olivier Bercault have worked with Hissene Habre’s victims on behalf of Human Rights Watch since 1999. The film ‘Talking about Rose’ is available on-line.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.