Paris – Chadian teenager Zouhoura, whose gang-rape by young men from well-to-do families sparked unprecedented mass protests in her country, says she wants justice for herself and for “all women” who have long suffered in silence.
On February 8, the fragile-looking 16-year-old was assaulted in a brutal attack that shocked many in the poor central African nation, triggering weeks of of demonstrations by thousands of young people in the streets.
Zouhoura was on her way to school in the capital N’Djamena with a friend when a car with tinted windows pulled up alongside them. Five boys were in the vehicle, whom Zouhoura later learned were rich sons of the ruling class.
“They grabbed me by the neck and threw me into the car,” Zouhoura told AFP, stammering with emotion, her voice still almost child-like. “They took me outside the city by force… You know the rest.”
Zouhoura has since returned to France, where she already lived with relatives from 2009 to 2015. She decided to speak out publicly in Paris to fight impunity for sex criminals in her homeland.
“There has never been justice before over the rape of a Chadian woman,” said Zouhoura, her gaze firm from beneath a grey headscarf.
– ‘I’m not sole victim’ –
“I’m not the only victim. There are other women and girls who have been raped – I know them – and they have remained anonymous, they have said nothing,” she added in an interview Friday.
Encouraged by her father, who lives in the eastern French town of Nancy and is an opponent of the hardline regime of President Idriss Deby Itno, Zouhoura agreed to address a meeting and give an interview.
“I expected him to say ‘Wait, we need to settle this in the family,’ but no, he didn’t hesitate. He told me to ‘go and file a lawsuit’,” the youngster said of her father.
“To start with, I said nothing, but later, when I saw that everybody was supporting me, I told myself, why not speak out, (and) fight this?”
When Zouhoura turned to the police in Chad, “at first they didn’t react.” Detectives considered that a rape claim against the sons of senior officials in the regime was taboo. “I talked, I talked. They threatened me.”
Furious to discover that Zouhoura was seeking action against them, the alleged rapists posted images of the assault on social networks.
But their action backfired: photos of the naked girl in tears sent a shockwave of disgust across Chad.
Despite the regime’s tight security, which leaves opponents little room for manoeuvre, hundreds of schoolchildren demonstrated in the capital on February 15.
They were dispersed by riot police and one youth, 17-year-old Abbachou Hassan Ousmane, was shot dead.
The protest movement spread to other Chadian towns in the days that followed. More young demonstrators were wounded and at least 17 were arrested, but the wave of solidarity spread abroad.
– ‘No justice in Chad’ –
To see Chadians from the diaspora joining the protest as far afield as London and Washington, “that encouraged me,” Zouhoura said.
When Chadian authorities “saw that the people were demonstrating and that my picture was circulating everywhere on social networks, they were quick to arrest the criminals,” she added.
The five alleged rapists, who include the sons of three generals, were taken into custody together with four suspected accomplices, including a son of Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat.
But Zouhoura doubts that they will ever be brought to trial. “In Chad, there is no justice… I am not even sure that they are in prison.”
Although she is sceptical, she is determined to at least try to have them held to account. “I want justice to be done, so that this doesn’t happen again,” she said.
Zouhoura’s voice sometimes chokes and a tear rolls down her cheek. It is tough to speak out to journalists about rape. But “it had to be done, it was necessary,” she insisted.
The teenager plans to “continue this fight”, then later, perhaps, resume studies that were so brutally interrupted.