Victims Remember the Café de Paris Crackdown

One of Djibouti’s expatriate communities commemorated the 1990 Café de Paris terrorist attack last weekend, in Ottawa, Canada. There were also simultaneous rallies across Europe to remember and mourn the victims of the unwarranted brutal crackdown on the Gadabursi community following the terrorist attack.

On September 27, 1990, 32 years to the day, Djibouti was shaken by a terrorist attack in a well-attended hotel located in the city center. The Café de Paris was a popular meeting place for French expatriates.

The Café de Paris Attack

Thursday, September 27, 1990, around 7 p.m., 4 men stopped a taxi to ask the driver to take them to the exit of the city where they allegedly had a broken down vehicle. Arrived at destination, the driver is attacked and tied up by the 4 passengers. The 4 criminals got into the stolen vehicle and left behind the tied up driver.

At around 9 p.m., the Café de Paris attack was committed. Several dozen people (mainly French) were injured to varying degrees and two innocent children lost their lives: a little shoe shiner from Djibouti and a 9 year-old French boy. According to the first testimonies, the attackers who committed this “cowardly act”, four in number and traveling by taxi, managed to escape. “A search” is launched.

Around 8:30 p.m., the taxi driver manages to partially get rid of his ties and drags himself as best he can to the road. There, he stops a vehicle coming from Arta (and en route to Djibouti-city). Important thing to note for the rest of this case, this vehicle was driven by a Frenchman.

The taxi driver frees himself from the rest of the ties with the help of his French Samaritan and then asks him to drive him to the Gendarmerie brigade in Ambouli (the closest to the crime scene) to report the theft of his vehicle and file a complaint for the violence he suffered.

The government indiscriminate crackdown

Against all expectations, the taxi driver is then arrested as the famous taxi used in the attack was indeed his. From victim and witness, the poor man goes to suspect number one in a few hours. He is detained and subjected to the torture of the sinister police officer Haïbano and his henchmen (to extract a confession of guilt from him at all costs).

From September 27 to October 1, 1990, this unfortunate taxi driver remains the only person detained in connection with this affair. But the silence of the regime was heavy and everyone felt that something was being cooked up.

From October 1 to 10, 1990, the southeast of the country and especially the capital experienced a series of massive raids, rivaling the cruelty of the Gestapo style. By the thousands, the Gadabursi population of Djibouti-city but also of the rest of the country (especially the entire border region with Somalia) was arrested en masse and then sorted like cattle in the various police stations, the various gendarmerie brigades and above all, in the sinister “transit center” of Nagad.

Among the victims, there were civil servants, businessmen, tradesmen, teachers, clerics, intellectuals, journalists, men in uniform, students, etc. Victims were rounded up in the street, in their work location and in their homes. Their employees, their spouses and even their children were not spared. No family in the targeted community has escaped the regime’s collective punishment.

Moreover, in parallel with this state terror, mob lynchings supervised by the police sprung up in several poor areas of the city, in particular Balbala, and made hundreds of casualties in targeted community. Horror stories such as people being burned alive, stabbed or stoned to death by faceless gangs abound.

The carnage was followed by house searches and arrests of hundreds of “undocumented” people. They were kept for several days without eating, then stripped of all their belongings and valuables, and finally deported to Geestir (border area between Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia).

Pin guilt on a community at all costs

The most documented 232 people, mostly well-known Djiboutian citizens, were carefully handpicked and kept in custody, then transferred to the sinister Gabode prison under a warrant of committal, that is to say without trial.

This group was systematically tortured in a savage and degrading way round the clock for 10 days in a row until confessions were obtained. Some have kept serious and permanent sequelae (incontinence, sterility, total or partial loss of the use of an organ, etc.)

23 people, mostly large merchants or senior executives in the public service or the private sector, were kept in detention and referred to the prosecution. 19 of them were accused of for “terrorist conspiracy” and 4 for “terrorist attack causing death, injury and material damage”.

An investigation file was opened in the Djibouti “kangaroo” court, which decided to keep all the accused in custody, without trial, in Gabode prison, and despite the fact that they told the judges that they had been forced to sign confessions of guilt.

From the 11th day, the vast majority of detainees were gradually released. No explanation was given to them. No apologies either.

In December 1990, after two months of detention and several millions francs in legal fees and as much in bribes and other irregular fees, Badri Babanos, Ali Dig and Hassan Mahamoud Bock obtained provisional release. Then follow the other defendants of the group of 19.

In January 1991, the group of 4, including the taxi driver, formally accused of being the 4 terrorists who threw the grenades, was released, their case dismissed!

Abused by their government, cleared by foreigners

This affair had such an outcome thanks to the testimony of the French Samaritan who had helped the taxi driver to free himself and drove him to the capital to report the theft of his vehicle by 4 individuals.

Because this affair targeted French people, the French authorities, after carrying out their own investigation, quickly understood the deception. Without this providential witness who testified to a detachment of the French gendarmerie in Djibouti, things would surely have taken a completely different turn.

On April 1991, Amnesty international sent a fact-finding team who took testimonies of the victims of torture in the aftermath of the Café de Paris attack, and in a letter released on November of that year called the Djiboutian leadership to “end torture and arbitrary detention”.

In any case, after this dismissal, most of the victims filed a complaint, for lack of anything better, in the Djibouti court for kidnapping, physical and moral torture, loss of income, etc. Only one, Said Weyrah, obtained symbolic material reparation of 4.7 million DJF (approximately US$ 26,500).

The others, those who could not leave the country or who did not simply die in total misery over time, still wander in the corridors of the Courthouse with, under the arm, a file tarnished by time and the elements. They still believe they will win their case one day.

As for the unfortunate taxi driver, following this savage torture lost an eye. He is now one-eyed and without income.

Eventually, 4 other people, who had nothing to do with the battered community, were formally charged of being the perpetrators of the attack and the theft of the taxi. 3 received light sentences of 6 to 8 years and the fourth was reportedly murdered by the Djiboutian intelligence service in Ethiopia where he had fled.

A memory work

For the Gadabursi community, the damage is done. The terror deployed by the Djiboutian regime after the attack on the Café de Paris crowned years of purge and alienation that had begun under French colonization and gained momentum after the 1977 independence.

Three-quarters of this once enterprising and prominent community in Djibouti since its inception have taken to exile mostly in Europe, North America and the northern Somali province of Awdal. Their human and civil rights have been blatantly violated and the trauma remains deep.

To this day, many of their executioners are still alive and entrenched in power, including President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who was the mastermind of the targeted repression, and the head of the Djibouti army, General Zakarieh Sheikh Ibrahim.

Although some survivors and relatives of the victims have always commemorated the fatal date of September 27 since the incident, the recent creation of the Collective of Victims of Café de Paris (CVCP) created by Djiboutian expatriates in Europe and North America promises to do memory work.

The demonstration held at the Centennial Flame in front of the Canadian Parliament on the September 24 and the dinner the following day was co-sponsored by the CVCP and ADAL, an organization which works to promote rights in the Horn of Africa.

Both events brought together members of the Djiboutian community as well as opposition politicians, rights activists and researchers who committed to seeking an acceptable closure for the victims of the Café de Paris crackdown.