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The legacy of a Big Man on a small island

Children play in the rain on streets of Barakani, on the Comoros island of Anjouan Guy Oliver/IRIN

Unlike the hundreds, if not thousands, of people hauled off for torture sessions by Mohamed Bacar's militia on the word of paid informants, Laidine Abdullah was betrayed by a small  photograph, pinned up and almost invisible in the clutter in his shop, of  the rival presidential candidate, Moussa Toybou.

The photograph was "evidence" of Abdullah's "sedition" against Anjouan's strongman.

Abdullah's shop is in a maze of narrow pathways in the Barakani neighbourhood, which clings to the lush steep slopes of Anjouan - the least developed of the three islands - Grand Comore, Moheli and Anjouan - comprising the Comoros state.

The shop is a few hundred metres from Bacar's villa, a construction that shares greater architectural affinity with a concrete bunker than a luxurious residence, squatting amid a sea of poverty.

"At about 4 p.m., eight of Bacar's soldiers came with their guns and arrested me. They took me to Bacar's house and started to beat me with wooden sticks in the courtyard," Abdullah told IRIN.

"They tied me up, put me in a car and took me to the president's [official] residence and continued beating me there. I lost consciousness. They dumped me on the outskirts of a village in the early hours of the morning. I think they thought I must be dead," he said.

''They tied me up, put me in a car and took me to the president's [official] residence and continued beating me there. I lost consciousness. They dumped me on the outskirts of a village in the early hours of the morning. I think they thought I must be dead''

Bacar had refused to step down as President of Anjouan in June 2007 after disputed elections, which led to a stand-off with the Comoros Union government for nearly a year, and also with the African Union (AU), and only ended when AU troops landed on the island in March 2008.

The AU had imposed sanctions in October 2007, although Anjouan residents said they regularly saw ships, said to be South African, moored off the coast. After he became isolated, Bacar instituted a curfew and stationed his militia outside hospitals and clinics; anyone bearing the marks of a beating was refused treatment.

Abdullah spent 24 days recuperating at home before being smuggled in a small boat to Moheli, and then to hospital on Grand Comore, where he spent a further month receiving treatment for his injuries.

By the time Abdullah returned to Anjouan, Bacar had fled with about 30 of his militia a few days before the AU troops arrived, apparently taking a high-speed motor boat from the village of Moya.

Bacar, the son of a former French regular soldier, has found a haven in West Africa, after first fleeing to the French-administered island of Mayotte, then to another French island in the Indian Ocean, Reunion, before settling in the former French colony of Benin.

Comoros claims the island of Mayotte as its territory, but France says that in a referendum held just before independence in 1975, most people in Mayotte chose to remain under French jurisdiction.

A referendum is scheduled for March 2009 to determine whether Mayotte should become an overseas department, essentially a French territory, whose citizens would enjoy the same rights as those of mainland France.

Talk of revenge

Abdullah said he knows some of Bacar's soldiers who tortured him are in Mayotte and he "wants revenge", or at least compensation for the cost of his medical treatment, which he paid for by borrowing money from friends and relatives.

After AU troops ended Bacar's rule, Comoros President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi "told us not to seek revenge, as government would resolve it, but nothing has happened," Abdullah said.

Abdoulrahime Said Bacar, the Union government spokesman, told IRIN the government was actively seeking Mohamed Bacar's extradition from Benin.

"We do not want his crimes to be forgotten and taken for granted. He must pay and we want an international court of justice to judge him," he said.  

Laidine Abdullah sits outside his small shop in Barakani, a village in Anjouan 2008121012
Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
Laidine Abdullah sits outside his shop - where the trouble began

The soles of Abdullah's feet were beaten to a bloody pulp and his body still aches, nearly a year after the beating. "All I am good for is getting up. I've got no strength to work or tend my garden."

As pressure on Bacar was ratcheted up with sanctions and threats of military force, family members were given senior government positions. His sister, Fatima, a former teacher, was made director of education; his brother, Abdou, a medical doctor, became a colonel and head of Anjouan's paramilitary police force; another brother, Ibrahim, a primary school teacher, became the director of public services. All are thought to have fled to Mayotte.

Anjouan was a catalyst in the development of the Comoros' complex electoral system, brokered in 2001 by the Organisation of African Unity, predecessor of the AU, in the wake of Moheli and Anjouan seceding from Grand Comore in 1997.

The Comoros has four governments, costing an estimated 80 percent of the nation's gross domestic product; each island has its own semi-autonomous government and president, with a rotating presidency for the over-arching Union government. The design was intended to put an end to years of instability and political conflict marked by mercenary invasions, assassinations and more than 20 successful and attempted coups since independence from France in 1975.

Airport served as torture centre

Anjouan airport's 1,400m runway, which juts into the sea at one end and meets a mountainside at the other, is feared by pilots. During Bacar's final year of illegitimate rule, the airport was feared for other reasons: regular beatings were conducted on the runway, closed to air traffic by boulders rolled onto the tarmac.

A small-scale cattle farmer, Zouhari Bacar, 45, (no relation) still does not know why he and five others were abducted from their homes in the village of Nyatanga, perched high above the airport, by about 15 soldiers late one night.

"We were ordered to lie down on the runway, and they beat us with batons on our elbows, knees, ankles and the soles of our feet. When they beat us, they told us we were going to die. I thought of my family and that there was no one to take care of them if I died," Bacar told IRIN.

"We were released at about 3 a.m., but only one was able to walk and go and get help. We were taken home in wheelbarrows. It took two months for me to recover [from the beating]. Two of my three cows died, as I was unable to look after them and feed them."

Omar Oirdine, 45, a small shop owner in Nyatanga, Anjouan, who was tortured by Mohamed Bacar's militia 200812107
Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
Omar Oirdine will not forgive the informants

Kassus Ben-Alloui, 30, a trained teacher now working as a hotel receptionist, told IRIN that the nightly curfews ensured most people were at home, and that made it easy for the militia to pick them up.

Informants were paid as much as 5,000 Comorian Francs (US$15) - a small fortune in a country ranked at 134 out of the 177 on the UN Development Index. Ben-Alloui said during that time "it was often said that the walls have ears."

People who feared arrest, especially the educated, often slept away from home or on the roofs of their houses. Family members would be detained if Bacar's militia failed to catch people, and were incarcerated, without water, in a shipping container at the airport under the tropical sun until they divulged the whereabouts of their loved ones, Ben-Alloui said.

Despite Bacar's brutality, food and fuel price increases since the island was liberated have induced a sense that things were not as bad as they actually were, Ben-Alloui said.

Opia Kumah, the UN Resident Coordinator in the Comoros, told IRIN: "This is a classic situation where people who have gone through any traumatic period turn around and blame their rescuers because they cannot deliver the expected relief immediately."

"In many post-conflict areas where there is not immediate help they tend to relapse back into conflict and the Comoros and Anjouan cannot afford that," he said.

"A person who lost a cow or two [under Bacar's rule] - that situation can be multiplied a thousand times or so," Kumah said. "A certain amount of disillusionment is almost inevitable. That is why it is urgent to start post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation right away to improve living conditions."

A UN assessment mission arriving on the island soon after Bacar's departure was shocked by the level of destruction. The administrative infrastructure had been destroyed, with offices ransacked and computers smashed, while health, water and sanitation infrastructures were in disrepair.

''Building a bridge from post-conflict [conditions] to sustainable development will take a couple of years in Anjouan, before you can say it is stable ''

A subsequent high level mission by UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund, also found high levels of malnutrition.

The Comoros has been declared eligible for the UN Secretary General's peace-building fund. Once received, this money would contribute to reinforcing security, promoting national cohesion and reconciliation as well as relaunching economic activities.

"Building a bridge from post-conflict [conditions] to sustainable development will take a couple of years in Anjouan, before you can say it is stable," Kumah said.

Elections for the Anjouan presidency were held on 15 and 29 June 2008 and Moussa Toybou won the poll, which was declared free and fair by local and international observers, but it did not erase the animosity of Bacar's rule.


Omar Oirdine, 45, owner of a small shop in Nyatanga, knows why he was arrested and tortured. On Bacar's instructions the radio mast was vandalised, preventing broadcasts from reaching those at sea level, including the island capital, Mutsamudu, but Nyatanga was not affected because of its altitude.

''They beat us with batons, especially the soles of our feet; they beat us until we could no longer cry. After they had finished they told us to stand up and get into the car. But we couldn't stand up, so we had to crawl''

Oirdine told IRIN he knows who informed on him. "It was the old people in the village who overheard me talking about Bacar after I had listened to the radio," Oirdine told IRIN.

The soldiers came for Oirdine at midnight. He was taken to the runway with four others and instructed to make lewd remarks about the mother of the Union President of the Comoros, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi.

"They beat us with batons, especially the soles of our feet; they beat us until we could no longer cry. After they had finished they told us to stand up and get into the car. But we couldn't stand up, so we had to crawl," he said.

It was two months before he could walk or pass urine without pain. "I know who the informants are, and I don't serve them in my shop anymore."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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