The massacre at the national stadium in Conakry on 28 September 2009 led to the death of at least 157 people.
Over a hundred women were raped and hundreds more were seriously injured. Soon after the massacre, people started to seek refuge in the offices of OGDH located a few hundred metres from the stadium: dozens of victims, some badly wounded; parents of people who had disappeared; eyewitnesses who had seen what happened that day. They came to speak of the horrors of the event they had just witnessed when regular citizens, political activists from all of Guinea’s parties and people from all communities had come together to peacefully call for democratic reform.
Our first priority was to attend to the most urgent needs. The injured needed medical care and some were afraid to go to public hospitals as these had been infiltrated by the military after the massacre. A number of private clinics helped us enormously with this and we pay tribute to them here.
I remember our astonishment with regards to the reaction of the military junta to the massacre. Not only did they try to downplay the seriousness of the crimes by blaming a few unruly soldiers; they even went as far as to blame the demonstrators for the outbreak of violence in the stadium. As we were speaking to the victims, we started to document and collect eyewitness accounts that would be used to prosecute the perpetrators in a court of law.
We had done similar investigative work in 2007 after the crushing of the January and February demonstrations, as well as during the protests by secondary school students and every time since the creation of the OGDH when human rights violations had been perpetrated in Guinea. On this occasion, however, we were struck more than ever by the determination of the victims and members of civil society to demand justice. As we would say in Susu (one of Guinea’s national language, essentially spoken in the coastal region) language: ‘Ye tombi nakhan fènyè ye rafilima’ to describe the straw that broke the camel’s back, meaning no more impunity.
In all likelihood, the fall of the military junta in the weeks following the massacre and a cross-party effort to return the country to a civilian administration have strengthened the clamour for justice. The sheer horror of the events of September 2009, notably reports of over a hundred women raped inside the stadium, precipitated a large mobilisation of pro-democracy forces inside Guinea and brought international pressure on the government.
The commitment to bring those responsible to justice was reinforced by the nature of the evidence given by victims which resemble characteristics of a theatrical tragedy: unity of place (the stadium), of time (28 September) and of action (soldiers and units of the presidential guard firing indiscriminately into the crowd). If the crimes of 28 September were eventually exposed and not disregarded, as has happened in many other cases in favour of political transition, it is first and foremost thanks to the courage of the victims and their tenacity in the quest for justice. By agreeing to testify in often precarious circumstances, by sometimes confronting the perpetrators and by keeping up the momentum to ensure that the guilty are charged they will have played a pivotal role in the quest for justice.
Through the photographs included in this book, we want to pay tribute to the courageous men and women who, for the past seven years, have fought for justice, truth and compensation. For much of this time they have been in the shadows as there hasn’t been an official ceremony in Guinea to commemorate the events. The victims of 28 September stand alongside those of previous human rights violations in Guinea’s history: Camp Boiro (1960–1984), the 1985 and 2007 crackdowns and the victims of torture perpetrated during interrogations, still today. They have all experienced state sponsored violence and yet they all continue to demand justice. At the time of writing, most of those alleged to have been responsible for the 28 September massacre have been indicted by Guinean courts, including the former head of the military junta, Moussa Dadis Camara, and members of the presidential guard like Claude Pivi. A much awaited trial is due to take place in 2017 and it will be the first time that such high ranking officials are facing court over their alleged crimes in Guinea.
Between the shadows and the light, between impunity and a hope for justice, these portraits powerfully embody the challenges that Guinea faces to over come decades of human rights violations and to work towards reconciliation.
The crimes committed on 28 September 2009 in Conakry weigh as a profound and enduring trauma on all Guineans and on the international community as a whole. Shortly after these events my office started receiving information and testimonies detailing the extraordinary violence with which the peaceful protests held in the national stadium in Conakry were broken up. In the course of the preliminary examination we initiated immediately after the events, my office came to the conclusion that the acts committed on that day and the days following could constitute crimes against humanity.
Since then, my office has been committed to having justice achieved for the victims of that horrendous day, either through the Guinean courts or through the International Criminal Court. Under the principle of complementarity, which is the cornerstone of the Rome Statute, the initial responsibility for bringing those who have committed crimes to justice lies with the Guinean authorities. Over the past seven years we have come to Guinea on a number of occasions to meet with the victims, their lawyers, the Guinean magistrates and with government officials to monitor the progress of the investigation initiated by the Public prosecutor’s department in Conakry and to encourage all parties to proceed with a trial as soon as possible.
The victims’ narratives of these events, particularly those of sexual violence, have personally moved me. Looking at their photographs and reading their poignant testimonies, I see faces that I have come across before and read stories that I’ve been told in the past. This book pays a fitting tribute to the victims and shows their perseverance and dignity during their long wait for justice, a wait that we cannot ignore.
By Halimatou Camara
Lawyer at the Guinea Bar, member of OGDH
Halimatou Camara: How did this photographic project come about?
Asmaou Diallo: In talking to the different organisations working with the victims, one of the recurring questions has been about the victims’ visibility.You have to remember that there are no monuments, no commemorative plaques for the victims of the crimes committed since 1958. In 2013, when Conakry’s 8 November Bridge was dismantled, the Association for the Victims of Camp Boiro was barely able to organise a ceremony and save a few stones from this structure so symbolically linked to the crimes of Sékou Touré’s regime.While we are still waiting for past crimes to be publicly recognised we wanted to shine a light on a number of men and women who, like thousands of others, have suffered from state-sponsored violence. In association with the FIDH and OGDH we asked a renowned British photographer to document the victims and their current situation, steering clear of sensationalism and voyeurism.
Souhayr Belhassen: Photographer Tommy Trenchard, who has worked extensively in the region, visited Conakry on a number of occasions, meeting victims who had agreed to take part in the project. By meeting them in their homes and their workplaces and accompanying them to the stadium where the massacre took place, he was able to form a clearer picture of their stories. Working with this knowledge he was able to sensitively capture their distress but also their resilience and determination. While we wait for the trial of those responsible for the massacre, these portraits offer a fitting tribute to the victims and a reiteration of their unequivocal message:‘We demand justice and reparations!’
Halimatou Camara: Why did you decide to include portraits of victims from such different events in this project, ranging from Camp Boiro to 28 September 2009?
Asmaou Diallo: Because these events are not so different in fact. While you can’t compare the number of people who suffered in Camp Boiro between 1960 and 1984 to the number of victims of the 1985 crackdown and the massacre in 2009, all these events have one thing in common: the systematic use of violence by the state against its citizens, its use of the security forces against the people they are supposed to protect. All the people in these images, along with thousands of others in Guinea, have been the victims of a blind and arbitrary state-sponsored violence.
Souhayr Belhassen: The thread that connects these portraits is also the fact that they are all waiting for truth and justice. None of the perpetrators of human rights violations in Guinea have ever been justly condemned for their crimes. The people in these portraits have been victims twice over: victims of violence and victims of the absence of the justice which is owed to them. Soon, the legal proceedings dealing with the events of 28 September 2009 should lead to a trial. Yet while this is a hugely important and historical step we have fought hard to achieve, it should not detract from the essential legal and reconciliation work that still needs to be done for the victims of human rights abuses in Guinea.
Asmaou Diallo: I would also add that by taking this approach we counter two worrying trends in the current public debate in Guinea. The first aims to divide the victims of human rights violations by assigning them to specific ethnic or political groups. Not only is this notion dangerous, as it promotes the idea of divisions in Guinean society, it is also completely false. The soldiers who fired on the crowd in the stadium in Conakry made no distinction in who they targeted. Similarly, the fact that Sékou Touré was Malinké didn’t stop him from bearing down on the Malinké shopkeepers of Kankan. The second worrying trend in the public debate is an attempt to dilute the responsibility for the crimes by suggesting that at different times over the past decades perpetrators have become victims and victims have turned to perpetrators according to their ethnic or political affiliations. By placing victims and perpetrators at the same level, the question of truth and justice is obscured and subsumed into a blurry notion of collective responsibility which does not chime with historical analysis and the principles of individual responsibility embedded in criminal law.
Halimatou Camara: None of the perpetrators of these crimes in Guinea have so far been brought to justice.
Why has it now become possible to indict them?
Souhayr Belhassen: Since 2010, the FIDH and our partners from the Guinean civil society have decided to place our trust in the national justice system since the Guinean authorities have committed themselves to prosecuting the people responsible for the massacre in the stadium. This commitment has been renewed by the current Justice Minister Cheick Sako who recently confirmed that a trial will take place. Holding this trial here in Guinea rather than at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague will be hugely significant for the fight against impunity and the consolidation of the rule of law in Guinea. It will also enable the victims to be actively involved in the legal process and for Guineans generally to follow proceedings. The prospect of putting people who until recently were beyond the reach of the law in the dock in Guinea will send a powerful message to other potential perpetrators of human rights violations. At a time when certain states are accusing the ICC of only indicting African leaders the Guinean justice system has a historic opportunity to show that a national African court can prosecute serious human rights violations according to international standards.
Asmaou Diallo: Yes, we want to believe in the national justice system since we think it is better to have a larger trial in Conakry, with all the suspects present, than a smaller one in The Hague which would only try the most senior officials far away from the victims and their families. The Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC plays an important role in Guinea through its regular mission in the country and by helping with the preliminary investigations. But in view of all the crimes committed in Guinea over the past 60 years we think that it is up to the Guinean justice system to bring the perpetrators to account and that this is the only way to bring an end to impunity. If the Guinean justice system were to not pursue these cases to their end, we would then of course look to the ICC. This is precisely the complementary principle set forth between national and international justice.
Halimatou Camara: How do you assist the victims of human rights abuses in their search for truth and justice?
Souhayr Belhassen: After the opening of the investigation in Guinea in 2010, the FIDH and OGDH filed a civil suit with the help of the European Union, bringing together a team of Guinean and international lawyers to work with the victims during the proceedings. Aside from the judicial work we have also stayed in regular dialogue with the Guinean authorities, including the president’s office, to ensure political support and facilitation for legal institutions.
Asmaou Diallo: In addition to judicial support, we have also worked with AVIPA to establish a support network for the victims, especially victims of sexual violence who were often excluded from their social circles after
28 September 2009. By suggesting certain means of generating income we have tried to address the difficulties faced by some of the victims. Now that the trial approaches and national reconciliation is becoming a real prospect, we expect more cooperation from the Guinean government in recognition of the victims and in support of the most vulnerable amongst them.