The Saturday Profile
By DIONNE SEARCEY
Every public housing complex in America is filled with individual tales of struggle and survival. This is the story of a dapper man in a black fedora who lives in unit 16G in the Bronx.
His name is Souleymane Guengueng, and he brought down a murderous African dictator.
In the 1980s, Mr. Guengueng was one of numerous people imprisoned and tortured during the brutal reign of President Hissène Habré in Chad, a landlocked country in central Africa. When he was released from prison after two and a half years, Mr. Guengueng began a quest for justice, meticulously recording the testimonies of survivors and the relatives of those who had been killed at the direction of Mr. Habré. He wound up with records detailing the abuse and murder of more than 700 people.
Human rights advocates collected his accounts and used them as critical pieces of evidence to pursue criminal action against Mr. Habré. The legal case was not an easy one. Finding a court to prosecute a head of state proved difficult. For more than 16 years, the case bounced between nations and continents, with Mr. Guengueng offering his personal plea for justice to anyone who would listen.
In May, in Dakar, Senegal, where Mr. Habré had lived in exile, the dictator was finally convicted. Next week, a court there will hear his appeal.
On the day of the guilty verdict, a defiant Mr. Habré, wearing dark glasses and with his head wrapped in white scarves as though he were bracing for a desert storm, raised his fists and yelled to supporters in the courtroom.
Mr. Guengueng was in the courtroom, too, his trademark hat on the seat beside him, flanked by human rights advocates who had pursued justice against other dictators. He had been a key witness in the trial. Tears spilled from his eyes, a mix of pride and revenge and sadness and relief.
“It was like an out-of-body experience for me,” Mr. Guengueng, 67, said. “Habré is in prison now. Habré must be saying, ‘Look at me now, he’s in this place and I’m in prison.’ ”
For Mr. Guengueng, “this place” is a tidy, three-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, one of 160 apartments in a towering public housing complex on a busy, nondescript New York City street.
In the human rights world, Mr. Guengueng is a celebrity, sometimes even stopped on the street by people who recognize him when he travels across the globe. In New York, he is another face in the crowd.
Mr. Guengueng first came to the United States in 2002 from his mud-brick home in Ndjamena, the capital of Chad, to accept a human rights award. He met the actor Samuel L. Jackson, cruised California’s State Route 1 along the Pacific coast in a convertible and detoured to check out Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. (“Très chic!” he said, eyebrows raised.)
He returned to Chad, where most people live on less than $5 a day, to his job as an accountant at the Lake Chad Basin Commission, a multinational group that manages resources around the lake. His vocal activism in pursuing legal action against Mr. Habré was wearing on the commission, Mr. Guengueng said, and he lost his job.
Mr. Guengueng blames his work with the commission for getting him into trouble with Mr. Habré’s government in the first place. At one point during Mr. Habré’s presidency, the commission had moved its headquarters to nearby Cameroon, and Mr. Guengueng presumes that Mr. Habré’s supporters passing through must have labeled the civil servants there political enemies.
In 2005, while living in Chad, Mr. Guengueng had a tear in his retina. He had long worn Coke-bottle glasses because of vision problems, and he said he suspected his time in prison had aggravated his condition.
Reed Brody, a former Human Rights Watch lawyer who doggedly pursued the case against Mr. Habré, arranged for Mr. Guengueng to fly to New York for medical care. He recovered in Mr. Brody’s apartment in Brooklyn, taking long walks in Prospect Park.
While his eyes were healing he started hearing from friends and family members that his life might be at risk if he returned home. Mr. Habré was ousted in a 1990 coup, but he still had many supporters in Chad.
With the help of Human Rights Watch, Mr. Guengueng successfully applied for asylum in America. Soon, he brought his wife and seven children to New York.
Then financial troubles and bad luck set in. Mr. Guengueng was on the Human Rights Watch payroll, working on the criminal case from New York. But that work ran out.
He was hired as a night watchman. But in 2007 during a stroll on the Coney Island Boardwalk, he fell and broke his leg. His recovery was long, and he lost his job.
His oldest daughter supported the family with a restaurant job. But she became ill and died, leaving the family with little income.
Home life was tense. Mr. Guengueng is trilingual, but English has been difficult. Taking classes has not helped. In New York, his wife felt as if she had lost her independence living in an unfamiliar place where she did not speak the language. And New York was cold. In Chad, afternoon temperatures rarely dipped below 90 degrees.
Mr. Guengueng did not give up. He and some friends pooled their resources to buy a deli but lost the money when the deal fell apart. He enrolled in a course to learn medical coding and billing but could not find a job in that field. He tried driving a taxi but the work aggravated his leg, which has never been the same since the break. His wife took a babysitting course but had no space to care for children. Back in Chad, another daughter died in a fire.
Mr. Guengueng was interspersing his daily tribulations with work on the Habré case, flying with Mr. Brody to courts worldwide to personally plead for justice.
“He’s a hero,” Mr. Brody said. “He’s done so much to change history. Yet his day-to-day life is one of hardships and heartbreaks.”
The family moved from a friend’s home on Long Island to a tiny rental in Queens. They could not keep up with the $2,000 a month rent and were evicted.
Three and a half years ago, Mr. Guengueng’s family had to move into a homeless shelter, where they were crammed into two rooms. Determined to find something better, he practically memorized the intricacies of New York’s housing laws as he searched for government-subsidized housing.
Finally, in March, the family left the shelter and moved into their current apartment in the Bronx. He lives there with three of his children; the others are now grown and have moved out. Most speak English, and one son, Jacob, 25, graduated from college and is an Uber driver.
On a recent afternoon at Mr. Guengueng’s apartment, a film from Ivory Coast was on the television. Mr. Brody arrived to see his old friend. Mr. Guengueng insisted on pulling his dusty human rights awards and statuettes from his closet. He carefully fingered them like gemstones.
Mr. Guengueng will be in court next week for the appeal, but his long obsession with the case is finished.
“It’s like a psychological healing has taken place,” said Mr. Guengueng, whose face is marked by deep tribal scars. “If I had just allowed this situation to persist and had a normal life I would have felt incomplete. Like I was half a man.”
The case also was all-consuming for Mr. Brody. He left his job with Human Rights Watch this past summer and has taken on volunteer legal work for now.
“We’re both unemployed,” Mr. Guengueng said, nudging Mr. Brody and laughing.
Despite the hardships in New York, Mr. Guengueng calls his time in America a success. His family has health care. His children have an education. He and most of his family have become American citizens. And Mr. Guengueng is thrilled with his new apartment.
“We’re in paradise now,” he said.
Mr. Guengueng, who says he is too old to find a good job, spends his days shuffling between municipal offices for food stamps and housing allowances. Every once in a while, the grind is broken by a black-tie dinner in Manhattan where he receives awards for his work.
He wants to create a foundation where he can advise other victims like himself, but he has yet to find a major donor. His own hardship is over.
“Now,” he said, “I think about the others.”