January 8, 2017


He Helped Topple a Dictator. In New York, He's Another Face in the Crowd. (Dionne Searcey|Jan. 6th, 2017M ny tIMES)

His name is Souleymane Guengueng, and he brought down a murderous African dictator.

In the 1980s, Mr. Guengueng was one of numerous people imprisoned and tortured during the brutal reign of President Hissène Habré in Chad, a landlocked country in central Africa. When he was released from prison after two and a half years, Mr. Guengueng began a quest for justice, meticulously recording the testimonies of survivors and the relatives of those who had been killed at the direction of Mr. Habré. He wound up with records detailing the abuse and murder of more than 700 people.

Human rights advocates collected his accounts and used them as critical pieces of evidence to pursue criminal action against Mr. Habré. The legal case was not an easy one. Finding a court to prosecute a head of state proved difficult. For more than 16 years, the case bounced between nations and continents, with Mr. Guengueng offering his personal plea for justice to anyone who would listen.

In May, in Dakar, Senegal, where Mr. Habré had lived in exile, the dictator was finally convicted. Next week, a court there will hear his appeal.

On the day of the guilty verdict, a defiant Mr. Habré, wearing dark glasses and with his head wrapped in white scarves as though he were bracing for a desert storm, raised his fists and yelled to supporters in the courtroom.

Mr. Guengueng was in the courtroom, too, his trademark hat on the seat beside him, flanked by human rights advocates who had pursued justice against other dictators. He had been a key witness in the trial. Tears spilled from his eyes, a mix of pride and revenge and sadness and relief.

"It was like an out-of-body experience for me," Mr. Guengueng, 67, said. "Habré is in prison now. Habré must be saying, 'Look at me now, he's in this place and I'm in prison.' "

For Mr. Guengueng, "this place" is a tidy, three-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, one of 160 apartments in a towering public housing complex on a busy, nondescript New York City street.

In the human rights world, Mr. Guengueng is a celebrity, sometimes even stopped on the street by people who recognize him when he travels across the globe. In New York, he is another face in the crowd. [...]

Despite the hardships in New York, Mr. Guengueng calls his time in America a success. His family has health care. His children have an education. He and most of his family have become American citizens. And Mr. Guengueng is thrilled with his new apartment.

"We're in paradise now," he said.

Posted by at January 8, 2017 5:34 PM