There is a heart-stopping moment in a new documentary about the survivors of Chadian dictator Hissene Habre’s torture chambers, when one of the torturers kneels down in front of his victim and begs for forgiveness.
“I had to follow orders,” mumbles “Mahamat the Cameroonian” — now a broken man himself living on the streets as an outcast.
“Then why did you have to beat me so badly?” his victim asks, handing the former gendarme the rubber pipe he used to flail his prisoner’s leg to a pulp.
“Your superiors told you to stop, but you went on and on,” adds the man, who lost the leg.
The scene is typical of the muted but unflinching encounters that fill “Hissein Habre: A Chadian Tragedy”, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s quietly dignified film about one of Africa’s least known mass killings, which premieres at the Cannes film festival Monday.
Some 40,000 people were murdered during Habre’s eight-year reign of terror, a Chadian commission concluded, while the West looked the other way, more worried about the Cold War and Moamer Kadhafi in neighbouring Libya.
Habre was their ally and American and French money even paid for the country’s political police, the feared DDS, to torture on an industrial scale, said Clement Abaifouta, who leads a survivors’ group in the capital N’Djamena.
The group has spent 15 years trying to bring the former rebel leader — who was deposed in 1990 — to trial. Habre will finally be judged later this month at a special tribunal in neighbouring Senegal, where he had fled into exile.
One of the victims featured in the film, Adimatcho Djamai, who was tortured so badly he spent more than two decades on the flat of his back in a corrugated iron shack, died the day he was due to testify at Habre’s trial.
Haroun told AFP he wanted to cast a light on what he calls “this genocide” largely ignored by the outside world “because it was some business of the blacks” carried out behind closed doors.
The director uses Abaifouta as his narrator, visiting his fellow survivors and gently coaxing the horrific stories of their torture from them.
A hugely cultured man, he was chosen by the guards to bury those who died around him in the packed cells from hunger, thirst and torture.
Sometimes he would wake to find another inmate dead beside him and “be glad that it meant a little more space. That is what we were reduced to” he said. “We were beasts.”
“I had to pull my life together with a rake” afterwards, he said.
Haroun said most of the people who were rounded up by Habre’s DDS henchmen “were innocent. They were arrested for no reason, the random victims of a bloodthirsty regime.”
One, Robert Gambier, trying to explain the terrible things done to them, thought Habre might have wanted to appease the spirits with human “sacrifice so he could hold onto power”.
Haroun — Chad’s foremost filmmaker whose film “Grigris” competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2013 — told AFP he wanted to see “if was it possible to still live together after such monstrosities. Can survivors still find a place for forgiveness in their hearts?”
While “Mahamat the Cameroonian” is forgiven by his victim, another survivor Haroun filmed was convinced his former torturer would one day try to murder him so he wouldn’t have to see pass him in the street again.
Asked by Abaifouta if he would kill the man if he had the chance, he said he would.
While the victims pray that Habre will be punished by the judges in Dakar, they are under no illusions that it will make their pain any more bearable.
One man who was once rich enough to have five wives said he was now a “vegetable”, his brain shrunk by the lack of vitamins while in jail. “Only one of the wives has stayed.”
For those who still have their minds, the torture continues in the memories they carry. “I carry the dead around my head like a turban,” one said.