Abdoulaye Bah, a Guinean citizen now retired from the UN, lives in Rome and is a volunteer translator for Global voices in French, which he joined out of interest for cyberactivism against human rights violations everywhere, of all kinds. Abdoulaye is also involved in the website and virtual memorial caampboiro.org, created by the “Association of victims of Camp Boiro and of all concentration camps in Guinea”, both founded by Professor Tierno Siradiou Bah, to advocate for the forgotten victims of Sekou Touré's regime in Guinea. Abdoulaye agreed to be interviewed on a very dark and little known episode of Guinean history, a painful subject for him, to give a voice to the thousands who died under tortures in his country and, hopefully, contribute to remembrance and the edification of a real-life memorial in Conakry.
What is Boiro Camp?
Camp Boiro is the former barracks of the Republican guards in Donka, a suburb of Conakry, Guinea, it became a political prison and torture block from 1958 to 1984. All people accused by the revolutionary regime of Ahmed Sekou Touré, rightly or wrongly, of misdeeds, counter-revolutionary activities, middle-class attitude etc, were locked up and more often than not, executed, after all kinds of humiliation and tortures [Fr] including fatal privation of food and water (a torture called “diète noire” black fast),electroshocks, sexual violences, etc. According to international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, over 50.000 [Fr] lost their lives in Camp Boiro and similar places in Guinea. Mass graves are still being found all around Guinea.
Could you please state in which context this took place?
In 1958, the former colonial power, France, held a referendum offering African people a choice between staying within the frame of a French-African Community, or opting for independence. Guinea alone decided for independence at that time, which it got. France retaliated by severing all ties and investments, destroying buildings, and isolating Guinea. The leader of the Guinean splinter group of Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (“African Democratic Rally”), Ahmed Sékou Touré, a former trade unionist, embodied the African intellectuals and youth's ideals. A national union government was set up. Left wing intellectuals, Guineans from abroad, flocked home, wishing to help the young nation. But very soon the dream became a nightmare.
Sekou Touré set up a pyramidal political system, with a party cell in every village, city area, military barracks, school. Everywhere Guineans were to be found, they had to create one, even abroad. Each and every Guinean citizen was a «party member from birth to death». The whole country turned into a giant prison, called by some media a “Tropical goulag” [Fr]. To get out of Guinea, you needed an exit visa signed by the dictator himself, individually. A militia was created [Fr] and denouncement took hold, even within families.
On which grounds were people arrested and jailed in Camp Boiro ?
Any pretext was good enough to arrest and torture : an identity check while exiting a movie theatre, student protests, having a wife or a villa that appealed to a lord of the regime, etc. Most of the time, you were arrested without reason. In her memoir, «Grain de Sable” , Ms Nadine Barry recalls how she tried with her husband (who died in jail) to hide a bottle-opener whose handle sported an effigy of General de Gaulle, by burying it in their garden. Unfortunately, the heavy rains of Conakry unearthed it.
Has what went on in Camp Boiro been documented?
A few books describe the conditions of detention in the camp [Fr]. The new prisoners were « conditionned », left for a few days without food and drink, then tried by the investigation committee. Without knowing for what the committee reproached them, they were asked to give away their accomplices, beaten, tortured with mechanical devices, forced to keep painful positions, cigarette butts were extinguished on their body, etc, until fainting or death. For days, they were asked to confess imaginary crimes : spying for the CIA or the French, receiving bribes, being a “fifth column agent”. As long as the victim did not confess, tortures did not stop. The confessions were then read by the victim on the radio, and were used to give a semblance of rationality for other arrests.
In 1976, Sekou Touré declared war on the Peul ethnic group [Fr], 40% of the nation's population. A brutal repression brought into prisons and graves thousands of innocent people, including the archbishop of Conakry, Mgr Raymond-Marie Tchidimbo [Fr].
An estimated third of the population had left the country when Sékou Touré died in 1984.
You are yourself Peul. How was your family affected by the repression?
One morning, in April 1971, in Rome, I told my wife that I had dreamt of my father being arrested. I didn't attach any importance to this. He never went to school and did not nurture any political ambition. But I had not been living in Guinea under the revolution for ten years. I believed more than ever in our revolution. It was simply unconceivable for me to think that it could arrest and jail any innocent person. I woke up one day, at the Guinean embassy in Rome, when the ambassador harassed me, calling me “a son of fifth column”.
Only later did I learn that my father had been arrested the very night of my dream, during the compulsory weekly party meeting – if a citizen didn't attend, he was not entitled his food ration.
My father was killed at Camp Boiro, but we do not exactly know when. Most probably during the night of October 17, 1971. He may have been tortured until his spine got broken, and “sacrificed” the same day. Sekou Touré's sorcerer is rumored to have advised the dictator to sacrifice a number of people with light complexion that day. Unfortunately, in Guinea, we Peul people are considered light-skinned.
What became of you and your family ?
My family was ordered to abandon our properties, and left only with what they were wearing. My mama, wanting to take her prayer-mat, was violently hurled in the staircase. Before independence, my father was a wealthy businessman. He had sent his father on a pilgrimage to Mecca and bought his first car (a Citroën sedan) in 1949. He started off by selling salt, which he carried on foot from the coast in the beginning, and traded it for kinkeliba, a local tea much liked in Guinea. His money and possessions were “nationalized”, by the same people who murdered him. After my father disappeared in Camp Boiro, friends kept clear from our family, for fear of being arrested as accomplices. Only one of my uncle gave the family shelter in his home.
The militia arrested my mama too, charging her with knowing my brother's whereabouts. She was released and she crossed the border with Sierra Leone on foot, risking her life, to be with him. From there, they had to flee again, to Ivory Coast, as the Sierra Leone regime supported Sekou Touré. We elder children fled the country. That is why today, my sisters and brothers are Canadian, French, American, Austrian, Italian and Senegalese citizens.
Are Guineans aware today of what was going on in Camp Boiro?
Unfortunately, in Guinea, the rightful « duty of memory » is hampered by an information gap. The country lacks education, training facilities. Cyber activism is also very limited, due to poor Internet connexion, electric power shortages, low incomes. Guinean history was falsified by the torturers and nostalgics of the so-called revolution. They praise the dictator's memory, Sekou Touré, who died in 1984 (in Cleveland, USA). His successor, military Chief of staff Lansana Conté, followed his tracks. Up to the death of Lansana Comté, last Christmas Eve, Sekou Touré's memory was celebrated every year by the government senior officials. The country’s presidential palace is named after him. Sékoutoureya means Sékou Touré's house.
This why the Association des victimes, set up by survivors and children of the victims, works at locating mass graves, returning the remains to their families, rehabilitating the victims, claiming possessions seized by the State. Our aim is to turn the Camp Boiro into a Memorial (for some photos of the camp, taken in 1999, see here) dedicated to the memory of the victims, especially the cabine technique “technical booth” where inmates were tortured, and the “Death's head”, where they were executed.
Since President Comté died, another coup has taken place in Guinea.
A bloodless military coup, this time, which brought to the presidency Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. He is educated, he was trained in a democratic country, and he is young enough not to be involved with former regimes. Our hopes for justice got a strong boost on March 24th, when the new President officially received members of our association in Conakry. The meeting was broadcast on national TV. During this meeting, President Dadis Camara asked forgiveness from the members of our Association and revealed that his own father was among the victims. While an encouraging development, however, this is only a first step in a longer process to reach national reconciliation.
Interview carried out on March 27.