Sonja Barend, the celebrated host of Dutch TV shows until 10 years ago, has written an honest memory of her youth, in which the search for her father and his Jewish identity is central. This father she never knew is one of the many Jewish men who disappeared during the second World War in the Netherlands. Her mother was the one to open the door for the policemen and answered yes on their question if her husband was in. They brought him to the Scheveningen prison in June 1942. He would stay in this prison for radicals and resisters of the German regime during 6 months, before being deported to the concentration camp Auschwitz where he died on an unknown day in 1943. Why this happened and how it happened – all not known. In her intimate reflections on her imagined father Sonja wonders about the people who then lived next to him and who should have known about these deportations, and on that moment that her mother said ‘Yes’. The main question in recent autobiographical literature memorizing WW II is: ‘should we have known?’. In a publication of 2012 Bart van der Boom raises the question if ‘ordinary’ Dutchmen in the war could have known. And if so, were they able to understand the severity, that was unimaginable. People lived their lives based on experienced history and this was simply too strange. The book led to fervent debates. The end of WW II is 72 years ago. The ‘not seeing’ has become a collective traumatic memory.
This part of Dutch history comes to my mind when reading the comments of the Chadian diaspora on the situation in Chad. We live in 2017 in a world full of communication technology, that allows us to see more than 72 years ago, but do we really see what is happening under authoritarian regimes, or maybe a better question: do we want to see?
Arrests of young leaders
The arrests in Chad of youth leader Palmer Nadjo Kaina on 6 April and nine days later of Bertrand Solloh are not widely known to the world. These are just examples of many other arrests in Chad and elsewhere. Who notices these arrests? Why are they relatively silenced? Nadjo is leader of the youth movement Iyina (meaning ‘we are tired’ in local Arabic) and Solloh is responsible for Iyina’s communication and a member of ‘Tournons la page pour la démocratie en Afrique’ (Let’s turn the page for democracy in Africa). Both are civil society organisations that have become active (again) around the presidential elections of April 2016. The reasons for the arrests are vague. Nadjo, who was arrested two times already in 2015 and in 2016, has been accused of a possible disturbance of the public order by organizing a manifestation on the 10th of April, the day of the severely criticized elections in 2016. Iyina invited Chadians to remember this day and to wear the color red. Solloh was accused of participating in this organization. Other members of Iyina subsequently went in hiding or even left the country. For more than two weeks nobody knew where Nadjo and Solloh were. Even the Minister of Justice responded that he was not aware of the situation of these young people. Their lawyers had no access to them. Only on the 24th of April they reappeared in the capital city’s prison with the announcement of their possible judgment the day after. On the 27th they heard a requisitory of 5 years against them; the verdict will be on 4 May.
Were they detained in the prisons of the ANS, the secret police, or in the new prison Amsinéné in N’Djamena? The conditions in these prisons are not well known. The last reports of Amnesty on these conditions date from 2012. A recent master’s thesis of the University of N’Djamena from 2016 reports about injustices. Isn’t it ironic that this happens when a new film on the prisons and actions of the DDS (former secret police) under the previous president of Chad, Hissein Habré, has just been released, and whose creator, the well-known Chadian cineast Mahamat Haroun Saleh, has been nominated Minister of Culture? Nadjo and Solloh are part of a new generation of political detainees in Chad.
News about the young men is not part of daily talk in N’Djamena. Those who open their mouth fear to be arrested. ‘They all left, I might be arrested’ is one of the comments of a friend and member of Iyina. Spreading fear is one of the results of the attitude of the government who also arrests, interrogates and sometimes then liberates, like the 60 youngsters who protested/manifested on the 10th of April acting in answer to the call of Iyina. These are brave actions ending in intimidation and I can imagine that it is difficult or even impossible to escape feelings of fear. As some Chadians claim: we are living the horrible times of the DDS again. Many people prefer to keep silent.
The only sphere where it seems possible for Chadians to comment and denounce acts of the Chadian government is on social media. The blog forum Yadaari and Makaila-blog posted a few blogs about the situation. Sporadically Twitter refers to the situation in Chad: the hashtags #FreeNadjo and #FreeSollo, or #FreeSolloh were born in the tweets of Laurent Duarte, coordinator of the international movement ‘Tournons la Page’. But it is especially on Facebook that comments and actions are announced. These Facebook Posts are mostly from the hands of diaspora activists, who also organize manifestations in Paris and elsewhere. The content of their posts is not only about facts, but as well about the laxity of the Chadian population who they urge to take their destiny in their own hands. A regular commentator is the Strasbourg based journalist Tahirou Hissein Daga. Although the frustration of these Facebook users who find themselves outside the country and feel something needs to change is understandable, the question is if they are justified? What would they do in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation? But also if you live your daily life, does one really see? They are probably not right in the accusation of people who live in difficult circumstances in Chad. Being inside and act is not easy and reminds me of the situation during World War II, with which I opened this blog post. But those who are outside, like the diaspora and hence the international actors, they can see!
We should know
It is only after a long silence that the international community picks up this news, though still sporadically. To find their announcements and articles one has to be interested in Chad. The action that has become somehow public was the request and short report of Amnesty International and some publications on RFI (French news agency). Recently there was a denouncement of these arrests and a call for liberation in a common call. Why is the world not more active in denouncing these human rights violations? Did we not learn from our WWII history? Must we wait, like then, for 72 years to analyze an authoritarian rule and its atrocities? This, while there is enough information to know that there is clearly a violation of human rights? In this case we cannot argue that we did not know, on the contrary: we should have known.
And Chad is just an example. It is part of a larger tendency of authoritarian rule in different countries in the world. Some cases are well known and widely discussed, others are relatively silenced as is the case for Chad.
It is important to alert the international community by revealing the facts, and also by recalling the collective memory of WW II; by realizing that similar things are now happening in the world; realizing that we might be able to play a role to diminish the misery of the people in Chad, to diminish the risk of traumatic collective memories. We live in a global world, the realities of Chad should also be ours.